A candidate’s guide to winning the rock-paper-scissors primary.
Dear Democratic candidates for president:
At this point I admit I’ve lost count of you. Harris. Warren. Booker. Gillibrand. Castro. Gabbard. Inslee. Maybe O’Rourke. Biden, maybe? Sanders, probably. At least two New York City mayors. Buttigieg. Klobuchar. De la Hoya. Jolie. Yes, Oscar and Angelina. I am definitely intrigued. But, look, I have no idea which of you actually makes it to the ballots. I expect that when the first Democratic debate rolls out, there won’t be a stage in Iowa large enough for it.
There’s going to be a lot of you, that’s for sure. This is not unusual for sports; pro baseball, football, basketball, and hockey start with 30 or more entrants on day one, and by midseason there are still at least 20 with a chance, and by the playoffs there are still at least a dozen standing. If game analogies are useful (and this whole column’s premise presumes they are), we should not judge the candidates by the size of the candidate pool. It’ll shake itself out.
But for you? That’s a whole ’nother matter. In a wide field of actually qualified candidates, you each have to do something to break away from the pack, or you will get washed out. Even if you do, you might still get washed out. So I have one piece of advice for you, which you would do well to heed.
STUDY THE LIZARDS.
No, really, I mean this. If you care about surviving, you should know how creatures survive. It’s life or death. If you care, you’ll learn. Study the lizards.
The male common side-blotched lizard wants the same things we all do: relative safety, insects to eat, and a honey to hunker down with. The female common side-blotched lizard is a yellow-throated beauty, who will mate with any male that comes along. She has three choices of mates, each with its unique features.
The orange male is bigger and stronger than all the other lizards, and territorial about his harem of women. The blue male is not as strong as the orange lizard, who’ll chase him away. But unlike the orange male, the blue guy’s monogamous, forming a stronger pair-bond, which means he only has one female to defend from the smaller yellow male. The wimpy yellow lizard, however, has got something that the others don’t: he’s yellow. Yup, he looks just like all the female lizards. Now, this metrosexuality is never gonna fool a blue lizard, who’s a stickler for detail. But it works wonders on the big ol’ orange lizard, who assumes the yellow male is a female, and lets him pass unmolested — right until the yellow male steals the ladies’ hearts. This elemental Nashian matchup has remained in equilibrium for millennia. Check out the territory map below to see how strongly the strategies overlap.
Orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, yellow beats orange. Does this sound familiar? It might, because you know this trifurcated mating strategy by the name rock-paper-scissors. That’s a game you just have to understand if you’re entering a competitive field with a lot of players. Whether you’re a lizard or a candidate, you need to know who you can beat and how you can beat them. The lizards have figured this out. You can do it too. But first, you need to know how the game is played.
Everyone who isn’t into game theory thinks rock-paper-scissors is random. It’s not. It does have some randomness. But randomness is something you can adjust for. And also you have to know that there are some people who you can’t beat. That’s okay, because you can get other people to beat them.
You’ve seen that work before. Seventeen Republicans made it to Iowa in 2016. Among them were the brawler Donald Trump, the salesman Marco Rubio, and the bumbler Chris Christie. Trump knew Rubio was a real threat, but he couldn’t lay a glove on him. “Little Marco” was far too slick and polished for the brutish Trump to best onstage. Meanwhile, Trump was crushing Christie, a scandal-plagued hobgoblin with a 15% approval rating in his home state. Christie was not what you’d call presidential material. And then…
When Christie caused the Marco-Bot to short-circuit onstage, Rubio was toast. Trump just watched the carnage. Then, four days later, Chris Christie was gone. With no ability to cut into Trump’s base, Christie’s pointless campaign registered exactly zero impact, except he had fatally wounded Rubio. When Rubio hung it up a month later, Trump was left with only Ted Cruz as a credible threat. Now that guy Trump could beat.
When you Democrats head to Iowa, you should keep this in mind: you are basically all the same. You’re all impressively credentialed liberals who won’t win over anyone in a MAGA hat and will likely sweep everyone else. No one cares who wins the primaries. We all just want a serious candidate who can rid us of the criminal malfeasance and incompetence of the Trump-Pence regime.
In a field where everyone is basically the same, you really have to know the game. That’s where rock-paper-scissors can teach you something. As I said, it’s not random. The following are facts.
- Statistics matter. Rock is chosen 35.4% of the time, paper 35%, and scissors 29.6%. Choosing paper wins and ties more than any other choice.
- Gender matters. Men throw rock more than women do. Though there’s less data, it is believed that women throw scissors more than men do.
- Experience matters. Most players won’t throw the same thing three times in a row. If they throw rock-rock, switch to scissors and you’re likely safe.
- Losing matters. A player who loses will likely switch to a different option. If they lose with paper, switch to rock and you’re likely safe.
- Tells matter. Tucking your thumb slightly into your index finger portends that you will throw rock, which experienced players will see and counter.
- Trash talk really matters. Telling your opponent that you will throw rock will get them to believe you won’t, and you can counter by throwing rock.
Now you’re onstage in a debate with many candidates. A candidate speaks:
- They’re saying what the audience expects them say. You have a strategy: Say something they don’t expect you to say.
- You’re a different gender than your foe. You have a strategy: Counter their aggression with calmness, or their incitement with quiet strength.
- They’ve completed a thought on a subject, and handled a followup. You have a strategy: Get them to think up a new thought on the same subject.
- They have just been humbled by an opponent. You have a strategy: Hit them on a different front, not the same one.
- They’re about to launch into a familiar talking point. You have a strategy: Say they will say it and make them repeat it.
- They’re handling pressure well. You have a strategy: Tell them what you think of their strategy before they enact it.
Whatever they do, whoever they are, you have a strategy for that person and that situation. It’s not random. You’ve thought this through. Sure, you may think the relevant thing is your experience as a senator or a governor or a mayor or, I don’t know, maybe a boxer? I’m telling you it isn’t. You’re just another prospect with enough game to make the show and the same odds as everyone else. If you show up with a strategy, you have a chance to win.
Because if you don’t, you’re just another Marco-Bot waiting to misfire.
This is the twenty-seventh installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, and the stock market. Many of these essays are in my new book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking that link.