Politics & Policy

How the Overstuffed GOP Primary Field Led to Trump’s Victory

Rubio, Trump, and Carson at the Republican debate in Boulder, Colo., October 28, 2015. (Reuters photo: Rick Wilking)
The interests of the individual candidates often clashed with the interest of the party as a whole.

There are many theories for Trump’s rise, but the simplest is the truest. Celebrity populism combined with media support helped him win a divided field. He started from a base of around 20 percent, a number similar to past fringe candidates. He was then lifted to front-runner status with his media advantage. Unlike previous front-runners, he never came under attack in a way that would have exposed his vulnerabilities, as is happening right now.

The failure was in not taking him down before the primaries started and in failing to unite behind an alternative front-runner. Had the party united to defeat Trump, he could have been defeated. But each candidate focused on his own interests and hoped to be the last person standing. The assumption, which turned out to be wrong, was that Trump could not defeat a candidate face to face and would be doomed once the field narrowed.

Writing in the Investor’s Business Daily, Stephen Moore compared this to the “prisoner’s dilemma,” a concept drawn from game theory. The prisoner’s dilemma is usually described as follows. Two prisoners are facing medium sentences, let’s say five years each. Each can turn evidence for additional crimes that will give the other a longer sentence, say, ten years. The prisoner who turns evidence will be rewarded with a three-year reduction in his sentence.

What each prisoner realizes is that regardless of what the other does, it’s worth it to snitch. If the other keeps quiet, snitching will reduce your sentence from five years to two. And if the other does snitch, you can reduce your sentence from ten years to seven. Since each prisoner acts in his own self-interest, they will both turn evidence, and both will end up with seven-year sentence; whereas if both had kept silent, both would be better off.

However, if the two have a way to communicate or if they have a code of conduct that they trust, they can break the pattern. When the Cruz and Kasich campaigns coordinated late in the primary process, Marketplace described it as an example of repeat playing, in which the players start to understand that it’s in their best interest to cooperate.

Ideally, members of a political party should have an overriding shared interest in ensuring that their party wins. Barring that, they should at least take their own interests to heart. After all, they are not playing blind; there are channels of communications that allow the players to make deals. So why couldn’t they communicate earlier on for a better result?

The answer is that the prisoner’s dilemma is not really an accurate comparison. In the prisoner’s dilemma, working together benefits not only the whole but also each individual. In 2016, the Republican party as a whole lost, but it’s a more complicated situation for the individual candidates. Many of the candidates did in fact choose the winning strategy for themselves.

It’s easy to see how Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker would have personally benefited from a Republican victory. As experienced governors, they were in prime positions for cabinet posts. But here’s the thing: All three of these did in fact attack Trump, and they were the first to drop out. They all acted as collaborators should.

The dynamic between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio is unique. If I were advising Bush, I’d have told him to drop out in the fall of 2015 and support Rubio. This would probably have resulted in a Rubio nomination, and today Jeb would have his pick of cabinet positions. In my book, he played it wrong and lost. But what if his priorities aren’t mine? As a man who had family in the White House for twelve years, a lesser office, even that of secretary of state, might not have been enticing. What if, for personal reasons, he preferred sinking Rubio over serving in Rubio’s cabinet? If that’s the case, in his book he’s a winner: Rubio isn’t president.

Rubio himself chose to generally avoid Trump in the first part of the primary season. This strategy obviously didn’t hurt Trump at all. While Rubio individually didn’t have the resources to take down Trump, if the 16 other candidates had all worked against Trump, it could have had a cumulative effect. Had Trump been taken down in the early primary season, Rubio probably would have been the nominee, so it made little sense for him to drop out or go on a kamikaze attack against Trump. I don’t know whether Rubio won or lost from a game-theory perspective, but perhaps he thought that eventually the party would support him, a questionable assumption.

Chris Christie’s direct hit at Rubio badly damaged the Florida senator but didn’t help Christie in the primary. This makes sense in retrospect, though. He simply joined the Trump train. He took the chance that Trump would win because, as damaged goods himself, he knew that it was his only chance for a cabinet post.

The primaries are set up in such a way that a candidate can ‘win’ just by running. This proved disastrous to the party as a whole.

Ted Cruz wrapped himself in Trump’s cloak early in the primary and praised the man, in the hope of picking up his supporters when Trump inevitably failed. Had he not embraced Trump, he would be in about the same place as Rand Paul: invisible. Cruz was never going to pull it off. He did as best as a man of his limited political skills could do and won the same respectable second place that Rick Santorum achieved in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. He played the game to a win, from his perspective. (Of course, being Ted Cruz, he blew it all by denouncing Trump in the most damaging way and then endorsing him at the worst possible time.)

But the real problem is the profile-builders. Probably half the field qualifies as such. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich, for instance, might not have had the stature or reputation that would qualify them for automatic appointments. They needed to run to achieve that. By getting on the debate stage and, in Kasich’s case, lasting till he was among the final three, they raised their profiles. Then there’s the whole slew of retired and out-of-date politicians who wanted one more chance at glory.

There’s plenty of perks to being a failed candidate. There’s always the next cycle. There are books deals, TV shows, or just good old-fashioned fame. Just getting on TV on the debate stage is enough for some egos. By lasting as long as they could, each of these candidates did win, in some degree. By dropping out early for the greater good, they would have personally lost.

So we see that each of these candidate did employ the best strategy, considering the final results. The primaries are set up in such a way that a candidate can “win” just by running. This proved disastrous to the party as a whole because it created an extremely divided field. I’m not sure what game this is, but it’s not the prisoner’s dilemma. If it doesn’t have a name, we can call it the “politicians dilemma.” 

#related#One necessary fix is limiting the debates so that there’s less incentive to run just to get on TV. The GOP could either restrict who gets in the debates or could hold off on holding any debates until just a few weeks before the primary vote is held. And there should not be any “undercard” debates. Some might complain that this will make it hard for lesser-known candidates to raise their profile, but this is the objective. The election should not be about raising candidates’ profiles.

We could also follow the example of Britain’s Conservative party. Members of parliament narrow down the selection to the top two, who then face all the party members (the portion of the general public that has self-identified as Conservative). Modifying this somewhat would allow governors, senators, and representatives to narrow down the candidates to the top three or four who could then compete in the primaries. Alternatively, we could simply require a minimum number of endorsements, which would limit the field. This might even bar the next Trump from running in the first place.

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