“Iowa nice” is a term describing how Iowans always help out a visitor in need. “Minnesota nice” is a similar thing. “Southern hospitality” connotes how the natives of the Deep South will always welcome a stranger, likely with food in hand. Here in Seattle, we have a thing called the “Seattle Freeze.” That means that if you move here despite our warnings about how it rains all the time, we likely won’t give you the time of day. We’ll promise to come by and then never do so. Sorry. We make it up in other ways.
For example, we all hate Howard Schultz as much as you do.
My fellow Seattleite Ken is being unfair, really. Without Schultz joining them as marketing manager in 1982 and taking over their retail division in 1988, Starbucks would not be a thing. Maybe Seattle coffee would have still taken over the world. Just as likely somewhere else would have burnt beans into candy instead of us. Many Seattleites owe their careers to Schultz, like many do to similarly polarizing figures like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. But Bezos and Gates never lost us a beloved sports team. When the naive Schultz bungled the ownership and subsequent sale of the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma carpetbaggers, Seattle wrote him off its Christmas list forever.
Imagine our shock and dismay when our boy Howie went on 60 Minutes and told the world he was “seriously considering” a run for president. Not as a Democrat, mind you, despite the Democratic Party matching up with his views on same-sex marriage and AIDS. No, as a fruitless, pointless, wrecking-ball independent, egotistical billionaire asshole. He and I even agree that the deficit is the greatest threat to America (other than Trump), yet no part of me likes the idea of him running as an independent.
That’s because of how third party candidates function in our current system and a concept from board games called the kingmaking problem. It’ll get a little complicated, but the most important thing to remember is that if your game allows a kingmaker scenario, that’s bad.
Kingmaking is when a person coming in third or worse place gets to decide which higher finisher wins. It may be named for Andrew McNeil’s classic war game Kingmaker. Players jockey for control of nobles with fun names like Scrope and Percy, aiming to choose the monarch who’ll end the Wars of the Roses. A player who is way behind in getting nobles might use the opportunity to throw the game to someone he likes, rather than playing to his own advantage. Even if the player has the best of intent—even if they say “I’m just trying to do the best I can for myself!”—they’re still choosing who wins, and it’s not them. The problem has shown up in many games since. They have embraced different ways to combat it, most unsuccessfully.
In the train game Ticket to Ride, players try to complete routes by placing lines of colored trains on small sections of track based on cards that say which cities they need to connect. If you know you cannot win on points, you can still drop a car smack in the middle of the tracks a player needs to golden-spike to make their route complete. If you do so to stop that player from winning or take resources from them, that’s kingmaking. Ticket to Ride tries to solve this by hiding the players’ routes from each other, which works a bit. But what works better is not inviting the jackass to the next game night.
To understand how effective kingmaking can be, imagine a track sprint where, at the moment two runners cross a midpoint line, a gun with one bullet in it is dropped on the track near the third-place runner. If she stops and picks up the gun, thus making certain she can’t win, she can legally shoot either runner ahead of her. What horrible rules design that would be! Who gives a runner the ability to kill one of the two athletes in front of her?
Well, our electoral system does. Our system starts by telling all participants that only candidates from the two main parties can win federal office. It’s not completely true, of course, and that inspires a brazen few to try to upset the apple cart. Before I get back to kingmaking, let’s review the record.
In 1970, using these fantastic and horrible ads, New Yorker James Buckley won a single Senate term as a member of the Conservative Party, the last time any person won a first term for a Congress seat from a party other than Democrat or Republican. The only time since that anyone has won a seat from another party was when sitting Senator Joe Lieberman ran on the “Connecticut for Lieberman Party” ticket (yes, I threw up a little in my mouth there too) after being defeated in the Democratic primary; he was never a member of that wholly fictional party and remained a Democrat at least in name thereafter.
But wait, you say, what about Bernie Sanders and Angus King? Well, neither had a party. After four terms as mayor of Burlington, Sanders won a Vermont House seat as an independent on his second try in 1990, and then in 2006 won a Senate seat when Democratic leader Chuck Schumer promised Bernie no Democrat would run against him. So he got all the Democratic money and support. Maine’s King remains the only person since Buckley to win a real three-way race for a first-time Senate seat. In 2012, Republicans alleged that King cut a deal to get the likely Democratic frontrunner, Rep. Chellie Pingree, to drop out of the race the day after he announced his candidacy. Regardless of the truth of that, it helped that he was a popular ex-governor (and a Democrat!) at the time. So in the last half-century, four people, all from the Northeast, have won federal races, the last three of which undercut the support for the Democratic candidate (or eliminated them entirely).
No one has won a modern presidency from outside the two parties. Since 1968, only three non-Democrat/Republican candidates have placed higher than 3.5% in votes. That year, a racist fearmonger named George Wallace siphoned off enough Southerners to get 13.5% of the total vote and five Deep South states, probably not affecting Richard Nixon’s narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey. In 1980, Republican-turned-indie John Anderson could’ve been a spoiler but his 6.6% wasn’t enough to account for Jimmy Carter’s 10-point loss to Ronald Reagan. The most significant independent candidate came in 1992, when H. Ross Perot snagged 19% of the vote with his aw-shucks billionaire charm. The next election, Perot did much worse as a member of the Reform Party, getting 8%. In neither case did Perot affect the outcome, splitting his votes equally between voters who would have otherwise voted for Clinton or Bush.
But it isn’t the best performing candidates that had the most impact. Two from the Green Party deserve particular note. In 2000, votes for Green candidate Ralph Nader decisively flipped Florida away from fellow climate advocate Al Gore, throwing the election to a corrupt process steered by the brother of the Republican candidate, George W. Bush.
Then in 2016, as libertarian Gary Johnson pulled from both parties, liberals voting for Green Party candidate and Putin favorite Jill Stein pulled just enough support from Hillary Clinton to flip Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to Donald Trump. With Nader and Stein, the Green Party has been the single most potent force against efforts to prevent climate change in U.S. history.
Here’s what Schultz needs to understand from this: For more than 50 years, no independent candidate has had a significant impact in a race for president except for two whose efforts guaranteed a Republican presidency. Or maybe Schultz does understand it. Trump got through a $1.5 trillion tax cut for the rich. Schultz is not a philanthropist on the level of Bezos and Gates, who’ve given away billions; he’s given away less than 0.5 percent of his income. Schultz wants to keep his cash. So if he can’t be president, at least he gets a Republican in office for four more years. Despite being a liberal on every other policy issue, and despite the Democrats being the non-crazy party on spending, being president and Trump Part Deux are both wins for Howard.
And therein lies the problem. Our system allows for intentional spoilers. There is nothing in the current system of electing presidents that can be done to stop them. The only thing you can do is to hope they register no impact at all, either splitting the votes like Perot or Johnson, or failing to drag votes from the candidate you hope will win. In this case, that’s literally anyone who isn’t Donald Trump. In the general: one candidate good, two candidates bad.
But remember the Maine electorate, because they’re showing a way out. After two gubernatorial elections where lawyer Eliot Cutler ran as an independent—thus handing the governorship to neanderthal Paul LePage both times—Maine voters had enough. For the 2018 primaries and general election, they authorized ranked-choice voting. Here’s how that works. If more than two candidates make it to an election, the candidates with the lowest vote totals are eliminated and their votes are redistributed based on preferences the voters expressed in case their candidates didn’t win.
Shocker: It actually worked! In House District 2, incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin came in first with 46.3% of the vote over Democrat Jared Golden, who got 45.6%. If there was no ranked-choice, the Republican would’ve held the seat. But independents Tiffany Bond and William Hoar together pulled 8.1% of the vote. When they were eliminated and their votes redistributed to the voters’ next preferences, Golden stood atop the heap with 50.6% of the vote. Once the inevitable lawsuits got dismissed and LePage certified the result of what he called a “stolen election” as one of his last acts in office, America finally had a political Jared it could be proud of.
That’s a great story. And on a state level, it is happening literally nowhere else, except maybe in Schultz’s ego. Since we don’t have federal ranked-choice voting, and likely won’t ever, you can’t waste your vote on a third party candidate when you don’t want the candidate who is least like yours to win. Sure, you might have other reasons, like hoping your party gets the required five percent to stay on the— Look, it’s just insane. If you want to save the planet from the depredations of Trump and his cronies, just remember the Green Party’s effectiveness in electing the least environmentally friendly administrations of all time. If you can’t get ranked-choice voting, then nothing in game theory gives you any reason to “vote your conscience.”
Your vote is a weapon. Don’t aim it at your own head. Leave the kingmaking to mean-spirited boardgamers, and vote for a candidate that can win.
This is the twenty-ninth 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, the stock market, the Democratic field, and shutdowns. Many of these essays are in my new book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking that link.