Deciphering Republicans' response with game theory

How did the Republican Party end up in such a mess? Its presidential candidate is being pressured to pull out of the race and now there is a chance it will lose control of both Houses of Congress. "Poor judgment" is a good start at an answer, but a bit of what economists call "game theory" can help put some structure on that explanation.

The first question many people have been asking is why it took so many Republicans so long to condemn Mr Donald Trump. After all, a pattern of racism and sexism from the candidate had been in place for a long time, and on public record.

Game theory suggests some simple pointers as to why Mr Trump's previous record wasn't enough of a danger sign to induce a rebellion. As Mr Trump won more primaries and approached the nomination, there was strong pressure on Republicans to endorse him or, at least, not oppose him. Supporting the party choice was seen as the path to donations, approval from Trump voters and appointments and access in a possible Trump administration. A lot of Republicans yielded to this pressure. Some of those who did not perhaps had no political future in any case.

Once most of the party is on board, it is hard to stand alone in opposition. Mr John Kasich and Mr Jeb Bush, who did not endorse Mr Trump, seemed to become irrelevant on the national scene, and Mr Ted Cruz, who endorsed Mr Trump only recently, was seeing falling approval ratings.

So the disgruntled Republicans were sitting around waiting for signs of rebellion from other Republicans. The 2006 videotape that emerged last Friday, in which Mr Trump bragged crudely about groping women, wasn't so much news about Mr Trump as it quickly became news about the willingness of other Republicans to jump ship. Republican women in Congress and politicians with large Mormon constituencies were some of the first to rescind their endorsements, and then it became evident that the public and party responses to the rebels were pretty positive. More and more Republicans joined the chorus of criticism and a bandwagon effect intensified quite rapidly.

Mr Trump (far right) walking off the stage alone as his former rivals - (from left) Mr Jeb Bush, Dr Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich - gathered after a Republican presidential candidate debate in February.
Mr Kasich and Mr Bush, who did not endorse Mr Trump, seemed to become irrelevant on the national scene, and Mr Cruz, who endorsed Mr Trump only recently, was seeing falling approval ratings. PHOTO: REUTERS

That's much like the way creditors desert a potentially insolvent business and in doing so ensure its insolvency. Think of Ernest Hemingway's description of going broke: "Gradually and then suddenly." Of course, given that such a political rebellion has occurred, it would have been better for Republicans to have done it sooner, say at or before their July convention, when an alternative to Mr Trump would have been easier to nominate and get on the ballot.

But collective-action problems worked against the Republicans much as they work against North Korean generals who might wish to fight against Mr Kim Jong Un. They know they'll lose their lives if the others do not promptly follow suit.

Right now, another collective-action problem may be damning the Republicans to a worse fate yet. If the Trump candidacy has no chance of winning or holding close, Republican turnout may collapse, thereby endangering party control of many lower political offices.

Republican turnout, and thus electoral success, might be helped if all the Republicans simply pretended that the Trump gaffe hadn't happened. But politicians often look to their own self-interest. After Mr Trump appears unacceptable enough in the eyes of enough relevant voters, political candidates and other party members will seek to distance themselves from him so that they can try to rebuild their reputations once Mr Trump is no longer on the ballot.

You might say those individuals are finally doing the right thing, but under another reading a lot of them are acting in their personal self-interest yet again, and again to the detriment of the Republican Party (though perhaps not the American citizenry).

In other words, the Republicans have been on the wrong side of game theory logic twice, first in delaying their opposition and then later in enacting it. Those are hardly examples of getting Adam Smith's "invisible hand" metaphor to work in their favour.

And might the collective-action disasters be upped yet another notch? Imagine if a more formal coup is attempted against Mr Trump. There are plenty of debates over what is possible this late in the election cycle, but it seems hard to pull off an effective switch in candidates without the consent of Mr Trump himself, if it is possible at all.

Thus, some Republicans might first try to tear Mr Trump down and then dangle some attractive options if he leaves the scene. ("How about a new business partnership?") What might be the incentive for a possibly selfish, profit-maximising Trump? Well, in the interests of getting an even better deal, he might not go immediately and quietly into the night.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Deciphering Republicans' response with game theory'. Print Edition | Subscribe