Election meta

cn: more board gaming than election politics, really

Usually around election time I write up a post about what I’m voting for on the ballot. Most things on the ballot are local, and not relevant to most of my readers, but I think it’s important to highlight and normalize the research process for smaller elections. The presidential election is important and all, but in all likelihood you’ve already made that decision so surely you can spare some time to research the smaller elections?

Unfortunately my last ballot didn’t really have any interesting local votes, so I guess we’re stuck talking presidents. Well shoot.

You know what, I want to talk about board games instead.

In games with three or more players, players are often presented with a choice to attack one of their opponents. This opens up a fair amount of strategic space, which board gamers sometimes sometimes refer to as “politics”. Common political strategies include:

  • Attack the player that you know is most skilled at the game.
  • Attack the player that currently appears to be winning.
  • It doesn’t matter who you attack, just make the choice that gives you any sort of edge, however small.
  • Attack players who have attacked you, disincentivizing people from attacking you in the future.

Usually a particular group of players will quietly settle upon a set of norms for how political decisions are made, either because they believe it’s good sportsmanship, or because they believe it’s good strategy. The strategic environment of a group of players is called the “meta”.

The interesting thing about meta is that it’s caused by the players’ beliefs about the best strategy, but it also has an impact on what is actually the best strategy. For example, if the meta involves attacking players who are currently winning, then it is good strategy to complain loudly about your losses and conceal your victories. If the meta involves retaliation, then it is flaunt one’s power to retaliate, and pick on people with less power to retaliate.

Political elections are also a game, and also have a meta. But in a board game, if you don’t like the meta of your play group, you can confront people about it, argue for a different strategy, or just find a different play group. In a political election, you can loudly complain about the meta, which does approximately squat. That doesn’t stop us though.

In US presidential elections, there are two major meta disagreements. First, should you vote for a third candidate? Second, in the primary election should you vote for a candidate who is more “electable” in the general election?

To my eyes, both sides on both questions have at least some strategic merit. Voting for one of the top two candidates has obvious direct advantages, but abstaining or voting for third candidate generates a “threat”. It’s strategically similar to retaliating in a board game–incentivizing players to make more room for you. And it seems obvious that the expected value of a candidate depends on their electability, but then again, electability is such an unpredictable quantity that perhaps it ought to be disregarded in favor of more known quantities.

My approach is to ignore 3rd parties, and ignore electability, but it’s not any sort of ideological commitment. It just seems best to me given the circumstances, and maybe someday I will participate in an election where I feel differently.

Other people though, well they sure seem to be expressing ideological commitments sometimes. Like “voting your conscience” or somesuch.

I can’t say I really understand it. I use my conscience to determine goals. Actually achieving those goals requires some application of strategy. “Pick the best candidate based on your conscience, then vote for them,” is not a very good strategy. And I think following this reasoning to its natural conclusion would lead you to write in the name of someone who isn’t even on the ballot. Because if you’re not going to restrict yourself to candidates who have some strategic value, why restrict yourself to candidates who are on the ballot?

I’m tempted to say that people who deny the value of voting strategy are perhaps following an altogether more clever strategy. Appearing irrational is a valid strategy sometimes, you know. But what I think is more likely, is that people make decisions based on contextual information, and then justify those decisions after the fact with broader principles, broader principles that don’t really stand up to strategic analysis.

Among board gamers, “scrub” is a derogatory term for people who follow a certain meta, not because they believe it’s good strategy, but based on some misguided notion of sportsmanship. It’s established by an essay by Sirlin where he talks about people who avoid “cheap” moves in fighting games.

TBH I think Sirlin is being a little unfair, and I’d point out that many competitive tournaments restrict certain “cheap” moves if they lead to poor meta.  The same could be said in elections, that certain strategies ought to be illegal.  But to some extent, following the best strategy you can is good sportsmanship.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    The problem with voting for the “most electable” is that I don’t think anyone has much idea of who is electable anymore. The polls that confidently tell us that this candidate or that one has a better chance of beating Trumpster are the same polls that told us four years ago that he didn’t have a chance, so I mentally add “+/- ~8%” to every poll I see these days.

    In the primary, it makes sense to vote for whoever you think is likely to do the best job, even if they don’t have much chance of winning the primary. Someone who loses but still gets 15% of the vote will have more influence and be more likely to be considered for VP or another top spot than someone who gets 5%, and their policies will be taken more seriously by the rest of the party.

    In the general election, I think voting for a third party is a chump move. In today’s politics, there are real differences between the main parties on a host of issues that make a difference in peoples’ lives. If you can’t tell any difference between the two, maybe you’re a bit too extreme yourself to distinguish clearly.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Regarding gaming metas, my favorite is the older game “Cleopatra and the Society of Architects.” Everyone is building stuff to get points. You can cut corners and use cheap materials, but that will give you corruption. At the end of the game, whoever has the most corruption gets thrown to the crocodiles, and then the winner is whoever has built the most stuff.

    In some groups, corruption is rampant, and the typical crocodile victim has 8 or more corruption. In other groups, everyone plays extremely safely, and getting even two or three corruption puts you at risk.

    The meta here is that it’s vital to figure out which type of group you’re in. If you’re used to group A, and you get in with a group B, you’ll die for sure. But if you’re used to group B and get in with a group A, you will also lose because you aren’t corrupt enough.

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