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Focal Points and Political Game Theory

While watching the Republican debate last week, I couldn’t help but realize how applicable game theory is when talking about politics. Two uses immediately came to mind: the strategy behind how politicians approach each debate, and the strategy behind how voters choose which candidate to vote for. A recent Washington Post article talks about the both of these topics, citing economist Thomas Schelling’s idea of coordination via focal points. In a race with so many candidates, the frontrunner will often win simply due to the fact that there is no one candidate for those who don’t support him to vote for. In this year’s primary, the frontrunner would be referring to Donald Trump, who people either love or hate. For some reason, he has the most supporters out of all the republican candidates, but he clearly does not have over half of the vote. Therefore, were he running against one other candidate (such as in the actual election), all those who do not support him would vote for the other option and therefore the other option would win, but in a race with about 10 other options, the choice is not simple. If the anti-Trump voters work together, they would be able to keep him from winning, but if they don’t, no one candidate will end up with enough support to knock Trump off.

Schelling’s theory is defined in the article in this context as “a non-leading candidate that people realize that others will realize is a good candidate to start supporting.” This is where the strategy of the candidate comes in. The article tells the reader to assume that by simply speaking in the debate, a candidate will gain support and have a better chance of being the focal point. However, this past debate had a twist in that if a candidate mentioned another candidate by name, the other candidate was able to respond, thus allowing them to gain support as well. Therefore, each candidate would have a specific strategy coming into the debate. The frontrunner, Trump, would try to talk as much as he could (to gain support), and under no circumstances would he want to mention the second-place candidate (Carson, according to the article), because the more the second-place candidate talks, the more support he will get, and the more likely he will be to surpass the first place candidate. Instead, Trump should have (and did) mention the rest of the field, specifically the last-place candidate (Paul), in order to take the spotlight off of Carson. The second-place candidate would attempt to avoid mentioning the rest of the field, because the more other candidates get to talk, the more support they will gain, and thus the more spread out the anti-Trump voters will be.

In concept, the strategy behind voting is quite simple. All anti-Trump voters should collaborate and choose a designated candidate to beat Trump and run in the election. However, in reality this is not a simple task as the voting strategy is not clear, and thus the front-runner wins more often than not.




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