Trump v. Clinton v. Larry. This Election Isn’t a Game—Is It?

Presidential hopeful Laurence Kotlikoff uses game theory to state the obvious: Nobody likes the candidates (hyperbolically speaking). The solution: Vote for him.

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Trump and Clinton

Source: Bloomberg

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two of the most unpopular major-party presidential candidates in history, yet one of them is highly likely to be elected in November. Why?

You want the boring reason or the fun one? 

Larry Kotlikoff
Larry Kotlikoff
Photographer: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The boring reason, which also suffers from being circular, is so boring we have relegated it to this footnote.1 Here's the fun one:

Although a lot of voters would probably be happier with someone other than these two, they can't agree on who it should be. So they fall back on Trump or Clinton, just to keep the one they like even less from winning. This is what game theorists call a "coordination problem."

It's a version of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma game, in which suspects held in separate jail cells both confess even though they'd get lighter sentences if both stayed silent. The problem is that, as with the American electorate, they can't coordinate their decisions. So it's safer to confess and get a moderate sentence than to stay silent and run the risk the other person will spill the beans to go free, resulting in a harsh sentence for you. 

The coordination problem is immensely frustrating to minor-party candidates such as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, who are repeatedly told that voters don't want to waste their votes on them. Nice, huh?

It also irks an even darker horse, write-in candidate Laurence J. "Larry" Kotlikoff, who has the additional burden of being a Ph.D. economist, which means he knows game theory inside and out.2 A Stein or a Johnson, or a Kotlikoff, for that matter, could still win the presidency if something truly enormous happened that lifted him or her above the fray and made the candidate less of a waste. But what could possibly do the trick?

In an interview, Kotlikoff speculated that for him, getting an endorsement from Justin Bieber might just be enough. (He might have been joking.) Bieber has nearly 88 million followers on Twitter, though a lot of his followers don't vote. 

For more insight into the coordination problem I e-mailed Beth Leech, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the co-author, with Rutgers colleague Lee Cronk, of a 2013 book on the coordination problem, Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation. The title comes from the idea that if you agree to meet someone in New York City but forget to specify where, going to the middle of Grand Central Terminal is a good choice.

Here's what Leech wrote back:

Interesting question, Peter.

My co-author Lee Cronk and I would say that Kotlikoff is correct that there is a coordination problem. At this stage in the electoral process, that problem is virtually insurmountable. His problem is the ballot. Clinton and Trump are on the ballot; Kotlikoff isn't. Ballots serve as coordination enhancers, signaling to individuals how best to vote strategically for one of the people most likely to win the election.

She added: 

Imagine a world in which no names were printed on any ballot, and all candidates were write-in candidates. Kotlikoff would have a better chance in this imaginary election, but so too would thousands of other people. Voting would be much more fragmented and it is unlikely that any candidate would get a majority of the vote because there are so many possible names that might be mentioned. Even in this imaginary world, Kotlikoff would have an uphill battle, because now name recognition would be paramount.

Name recognition is so important in coordination problems that Justin Bieber himself would have a decent chance of being elected president if he ran, except that he's too young, not to mention Canadian.

So the coordination problem remains unsolved. It's going to be Hillary or Donald. If that makes you mad, at least now you know why. 

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  1. 1 BECAUSE IT'S A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM.
  2. 2 He is an economics professor at Boston University specializing in public finance and has some interesting ideas for Social Security, Obamacare, and other issues.