Warning: This piece contains spoilers. Not about the 2020 election — about the latest episode of “The Bachelorette.”
On Monday night, Bachelor Nation collectively rejoiced as Luke P. was finally sent home. For weeks, Luke had been antagonizing the other contestants, alienating viewers and making enemies while still managing to get rose after rose. But on Monday, ABC finally aired the much-teased knockdown drag-out argument between Hannah and Luke that ended in his elimination.
But as Luke P. and Hannah fought about sex, God, marriage and windmills, I had an epiphany of the sort only the worst type of election wonk can have: “The Bachelorette” may be a better-designed contest than the U.S. presidential primaries.
Specifically, “The Bachelorette” has a great built-in method for winnowing a large field of candidates down so that the best one can emerge. Presidential primaries have some built-in methods of winnowing, but the case of President Trump and Luke P., his Bachelorette mirror image, proves that “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” host Chris Harrison and the producers are just better at designing processes than the people who run our political parties.
In season 15 of “The Bachelorette,” Hannah faced challenges similar to what the Republican Party faced in the 2016 presidential primary cycle. Much like the Republicans in mid-2015, Hannah began this season of “The Bachelorette” with a field of strong, decent, capable men vying to be her one true love. It was clear from the outset that multiple men were plausible long-term partners. But none of these solid contenders were able to dominate the competition.
And that’s where Luke P. stepped in and, whether he intended to, ended up using the Trump playbook. Trump’s basic strategy in the Republican primary was simple: He would pick fights and say outrageous things in an effort to focus media attention on himself, keep the other candidates talking about him instead of themselves and prevent the non-Trump majority of Republican primary voters from coalescing around an alternative. The strategy came with costs. Trump often focused attention on himself by making racist, sexist or otherwise controversial remarks and reminding some voters of why they disliked him. But ultimately, it worked. Trump was able to rack up the delegates with a plurality of the vote, while the 55 percent of Republican voters who preferred someone else remained divided.
There’s an uncanny resemblance between Luke P.’s strategy and Trump’s. Obviously Luke didn’t talk about race, immigration or other political issues, but he constantly put himself at the center of controversy and got other candidates to talk to Hannah about him rather than about themselves. Hannah and the Republican primary voters saw qualities they liked and appreciated in Luke and Trump, respectively, but it was clear to everyone else that both men were, intentionally or not, gaining an advantage by controlling the all-important flow of information within the contest.
So why did Trump prevail and Luke fail? Part of the answer lies in how both processes are designed. In “The Bachelorette,” candidates are forced to leave the contest progressively over time. Luke P. was able to hang on in the early going by attacking his opponents and claiming a unique relationship with Hannah. But he had more trouble when the field thinned out and he had to compete more directly with strong candidates and the penalty for a misstep was higher.
But in presidential primaries, there is no Chris Harrison figure who regulates the number of candidates who get to stick around — though to be fair, there is also no incentive to usher a losing candidate back into the race at the last minute to create drama and juice ratings. There are obviously incentive structures built into primaries. If a candidate runs out of money, can’t make it onto a debate stage, thinks that his or her chances of winning the contest are low or just gets tired, then he or she may choose to leave. And those incentives can thin the field — the GOP presidential field went from almost 20 candidates in the early phases to five at least somewhat serious candidates by Super Tuesday. But they don’t always work perfectly. There’s evidence that Trump would have faced a tougher race if someone like Harrison were there, forcing him to run one-on-one against a more consensus-building candidate such as Marco Rubio or Scott Walker.
Unless some truly crazy twist takes place — and Bachelor Nation knows never to write anything off — Hannah is likely going to end up with Jed, Pilot Peter or Tyler C., all of whom seem like broadly acceptable candidates for a long, happy relationship. The Republicans, on the other hand, will spend at least four years, possibly eight, defending an unpopular man who frequently says indefensible things.