Gaming the Republican primaries

The Republican primaries would seem to be a fertile ground for game theorists. For example, you have the current situation where Donald Trump is leading in the polls and in winning states and delegates. He does not have an overall majority in each category but is heading for a plurality. Ignoring John Kasich for the moment, the question is what is the best strategy for the two challengers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to adopt in order to try and win.

Should they desist from attacking each other and instead each take aim at Trump and seek to bring him down in each state? But that also risks their second place rival winning that state and thus gaining on them in delegates and momentum. Or do they try to eliminate their rival first by aiming their fire at their rival and bringing him down even if they have little or no chance of winning the state? That strategy could result in Trump winning that state and increasing his delegate count in the short run.

This is kind of a Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. If Cruz and Rubio work together, they may be able to arrive at a strategy whereby Trump is denied outright victory. But then which of the two takes the second position is unclear unless one agrees to cede to the other. If they work against each other, they may increase their own chances of coming second but increase the chances of Trump winning outright.

It looks like Cruz has decided on the latter strategy, which is not surprising given his history of seeking only his own benefit, everyone else be damned. He has apparently started campaigning aggressively in Florida against Rubio even though Cruz has little or no chance of winning Rubio’s home state that the latter must win on March 15 to stay in the race,

Ted Cruz is threatening to make one of the biggest gambles of the 2016 season: diving into Florida to knock off Marco Rubio.

Cruz has little chance of winning the March 15 Florida primary, but he’s showing signs he might compete by opening field offices and sending surrogates to stump in the state while his super PAC prepares to strafe Marco Rubio with a seven-figure ad buy.

The aim: pull enough voters away from Rubio to ensure Donald Trump wins the state’s 99 delegates and deny the Florida senator any pick-up opportunity elsewhere by forcing him to defend his turf. Doing that gives Trump a bigger lead in delegates, but it means Cruz has calculated he can catch up.

Whether it’s an elaborate headfake or expert play to kill off a rival 2016 contender, the Texan aims to force Rubio to spend more time and money defending his home turf, freeing up Cruz to more easily compete for delegates in eight states and U.S. territories that hold contests between Tuesday and Saturday.

I suspect that political scientists and game theorists will have in this year’s Republican race a rich source of insights that they will mine for years.


  1. says

    If Cruz and Rubio work together, they may be able to arrive at a strategy whereby Trump is denied outright victory

    That’d just further energize the trumpistas -- and probably win some new ones. Trump is a protest vote against politics as usual — the politics as usual methods for gaming the system are just going to be glaring points of FAIL. Don’t the republicans see that that’s already why Cruz and Rubio are floundering? They’re obvious sock puppets for their various puppeteers. When your audience isn’t buying your puppets, the answer is not “puppet harder!”

  2. lorn says

    It is something of a dilemma. The candidates, and factions, trying to out maneuver the others. The Tea Party running away from the system and they offer up mister insider himself, Romney to win them back. Epic fail.

    I also have a more personal delimma. You see, I’m in Florida and registered as a Republican. It had to do with trying to stop Reagan back in ’79’ by voting for the alternative in the primary. Down side I’m listed as a Republican and don’t get to vote in the Democratic primary in Florida. No big loss because I’m in one of the few liberal districts and the Democratic candidate I would have voted for generally gets the nod.

    The up side is that I get all the GOP talking points and releases. The GOP is 24/7 attacking Hillary. It has made me respect her more.

    My dilemma is: who do I vote for in the March 14 Republican primary? I have a hard time picturing myself voting for Trump because he is a clown and I would feel complicit in his election if I did and he made it all the way. Trump is dangerous.

    The logic is even more persuasive against any move at all toward Cruz. The man is a toxic waste dump of twisted religious fervor attached to a messiah complex. The man’s voice and manner makes my skin crawl.

    Rubio might win Florida. I can’t go along with that. I want to disrupt the GOP, not serve a Cuban Little Lord Fauntleroy.

    Which leaves Kaisich. Do I vote for Kaisich and risk the GOP learning to package it’s hateful agenda in plain wrappers and Gomer Pyle manners? A vicious agenda in a plain package seems more dangerous, not less. That was the problem with Reagan, he was grandfatherly and kindly. His agenda was worthy of a supervillain, superficially attractive but toxic to the nation and economy, but he always seemed to be trying to do the right thing.

    It is a poser.

    I think Carson will still be on the ticket. I could do that, but what’s the point. I might as well stay home.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    I’m in Florida and registered as a Republican. It had to do with trying to stop Reagan back in ’79 … I’m listed as a Republican and don’t get to vote in the Democratic primary in Florida

    Forgive my ignorance, but -- what? You registered Republican in 1979 and now that’s it, you’re GOP for life? You can’t change your registration, even decades on?

  4. Mano Singham says

    I am pretty certain that there must be a mechanism for changing one’s voter registration from one party to another though it might be too late for this cycle. Have you checked it out?

  5. lorn says

    You miss the point.

    I’m satisfied with my registration. Indeed changing affiliation would be child’s play. I never saw any need. So far the Democratic primary, the only contest in which my registration as Republican prevents me from playing a part in, has always gone the way I wanted.

    Besides, registered as a Republican I get to see what Republicans say to each other. While the Democratic mailings and e-mails, easy enough to see what my neighbors get, are, for the most part, straight up and reality based the Republican messaging is a paranoiacs fever dream of running a gauntlet of hideously lecherous (but oddly attractive) gays, exploding Muslims (who really know how to get a state to respect a religion), and poisonous feminist (who you really have to admire for toughness). Let’s just say there is, deep underneath, but clearly palpable, an undertone of grudging admiration and mixed feelings on the GOP side.

    No, my registration is not the problem. My dilemma is how to use my vote in the Republican primary to increase the odds of getting a Democrat into the presidency. And yes, I would rather see Hillary in the job but Bernie would be an acceptable second choice. This last bit based upon my estimation that any Democratic president will spend their first term as a lame duck because the GOP congress will obstruct and entirely stop any progress by way of legislation and budgets. After 25 years of state subsidized investigation Clinton can handle four years of frustration and leave the Democratic party, and Progressive movement intact if not unfrustrated.

    I’m kind of leaning toward swallowing hard and voting for Kasich. There is a non-zero chance he might emerge as the GOP candidate after a back alley fight at the convention.

    (Oh God, let there be chains and switchblades, and music. Trump would definitely be a Shark … I guess that makes Cruz the Jets. Why shouldn’t it all turn into a Broadway production. The GOP has been so flagrantly anti-gay for so long that that are due to have their passionate feminine side burst forth in some over the top manner. Rubio could play Maria and Trump could tell off the GOP establishment in a lively version of “Gee, Officer Krupke!”. It would be fabulous.)

    Meanwhile … back in the real world … Lorn puzzles over his choices …

    I kind of think that while Kaisich getting the nomination is technically possible, it isn’t going to happen. Mit Romney has about the same odds. Soooo … subject to revision (where is Pat Paulsen when you need him) … I’m thinking it’s a vote for Kaisich.

    And no, I don’t think it will make any difference. But, I have a vote, and I intend to use it.


  6. Mano Singham says


    Ah, I see.

    But there I can’t help you. I have never been a fan of strategic voting. It is bad enough when you are choosing as who would be most likely to win from among candidates that you can live with. It is much worse when you are voting for people whom you dislike and trying to figure out whom you think would lose the worst.

    I always vote for the person I like best (within reason) and let the chips fall where they may.

  7. lorn says

    “I always vote for the person I like best (within reason) and let the chips fall where they may.”

    That is the far more direct and simpler approach.

    The reason I deviated from what would otherwise be a quite sound practice is that I live in a Democratic enclave that has been gerrymandered so that the Democratic candidate pretty much always gets the local win even as the GOP slants the state totals in their favor. Voting in the Republican primary allows me to effect the statewide outcome in some small way.

    In 1979 the Republican primaries were, limited to credible candidates, between Reagan, Bush Sr. , and Anderson. I saw Reagan as dangerous charlatan and sought out ways to wreck his bid early. Voting as a Democrat I could do nothing but let Reagan’s momentum gain steam and hope the weak Democratic ticket could by some miracle stifle him. By voting as a Republican I was able to vote for Anderson. It didn’t change anything, Anderson pulled out after Florida if I remember right, but I felt I had done everything I could to stop Reagan. It was a small but substantial comfort as Reagan set about dismantling the US economy and destroying labor.

    Mostly I just fool myself, but sometimes I entertain the notion that if every Democrat disenfranchised by GOP gerrymandering had voted in the Republican primary for Anderson it might have been Anderson in the oval office, and the world would be a far better place.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Ah, I see.

    My dilemma is how to use my vote in the Republican primary to increase the odds of getting a Democrat into the presidency

    Gotta vote Trump, then. My logic, such as it is, goes like this: You vote Trump, and hope that he wins but gets not QUITE enough to secure the nomination outright. The GOP do some sneaky backroom deal at the convention that denies him the nomination, he calls shenanigans and runs as an independent, splitting the Republican vote, letting the Democrats in.

    That’s the only way I can see it going Democrat in the general. The alternative is that Trump gets the nomination uncontested, in which case he’ll dismantle the Democrats the same way he dismantled the Republicans (i.e. in a way nobody sees coming and won’t believe even as it’s happening) and win the general, OR that Trump doesn’t get the nomination despite winning most primaries and decides “hey, I gave it a shot” and gives in. I leave it to you to decide whether you think the latter a likely proposition. If the former happens, a Democrat win was never on the cards anyway.

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