Wednesday, May 19, 2010

California election update -- the candidate's dilemma

Today, readers of Talking Points Memo (at least those in California) saw the following ad:

The election is (as previously mentioned here) a compound game requiring two consecutive wins. There are certain Pyrrhic strategies which maximize the chances of a win in the first part and minimize chances of a win in the second. (at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, immigration is the obvious Pyrrhic strategy in this game.)

Let's say W and P are players from the same party with an equal chance of winning the first part of the game. If they can agree not to go Pyrrhic, the winner of the first part has a good chance of winning the second. If one player goes Pyrrhic, then that player has a much better chance of winning the first part and a somewhat worse chance of winning the second, overall still a net improvement. If both go Pyrrhic, neither gains an advantage in the first part and both take a hit in the second.

Of course, in real life, we have all sorts of mechanisms like reputation and institutions such as party leaderships to help us avoid the prisoner's dilemma. That's not to say that it can't happen but we are able to discourage it.

Now consider this scenario. W is way ahead of P but is more vulnerable to the Pyrrhic strategy. Here P is almost certain to go Pyrrhic even though it will hurt his chances of winning the second part.

This suggests an interesting counter-intuitive strategy for W: open up a lead slowly and don't get too far ahead. (In other words, the opposite of the aforementioned blitzkrieg strategy.) There are external costs to going Pyrrhic, loss of reputation, long term damage to the party, pressure and disapproval from peers. W could hope to find that sweet spot where those costs slightly outweigh the benefits to P of a Pyrrhic/Pyrrhic contest.

I don't know if this would have worked for W (counter-intuitive strategies usually don't), but I have to think it would be better than what she came up with.

(note to the the picky: I'm used an exceptionally watered-down form of the word Pyrrhic here, but if you can't get sloppy in a blog, where can you get sloppy?)

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