2016 Elections

Puzzled About Republicans and Trump? Game Theory Helps

With GOP leaders, as with North Korean generals, one can't rebel until all do.

Collective action.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How did the Republican Party end up in such a mess? Their presidential candidate is being pressured to pull out of the race and now there is a chance they will lose control of both houses of Congress. “Poor judgment” is a good start at an answer, but a bit of what economists call “game theory” can help put some structure on that explanation.

The first question many people have been asking is why it took so many Republicans so long to condemn Donald Trump. After all, a pattern of racism and sexism from the candidate had been in place for a long time, and on the public record.

Game theory suggests some simple pointers as to why Trump’s previous record wasn’t enough of a danger sign to induce a rebellion. As Trump won more primaries and approached the nomination, there were strong pressures on Republicans to endorse him or at least not oppose him. Supporting the party choice was seen as the path to donations, approval from Trump voters and appointments and access in a possible Trump administration. A lot of Republicans yielded to this pressure. Some of those who did not perhaps had no political future in any case.

Once most of the party is on board, it is hard to stand alone in opposition. John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who did not endorse Trump, seemed to become irrelevant on the national scene, and Ted Cruz, who only endorsed Trump recently, was seeing falling approval ratings.

So the disgruntled Republicans were sitting around waiting for signs of rebellion from the other Republicans. The 2006 videotape that emerged on Friday, in which Trump bragged crudely about groping women, wasn’t so much news about Trump as it quickly became news about the willingness of other Republicans to jump ship. Republican women in Congress and politicians with large Mormon constituencies were some of the first to rescind their endorsements, and then it became evident that the public and party responses to the rebels were pretty positive. More and more Republicans joined the chorus of criticism and a bandwagon effect intensified quite rapidly.

That’s much like the way creditors desert a potentially insolvent business and in doing so ensure its insolvency. Think of Ernest Hemingway’s description of going broke: “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Of course, given that such a political rebellion has occurred, it would have been better for Republicans to have done it sooner, say at or before their July convention, when an alternative to Trump would have been easier to nominate and get on the ballot. But collective-action problems worked against the Republicans much as they work against North Korean generals who might wish to fight against Kim Jong Un. They know they’ll lose their lives if the others do not promptly follow suit.

Right now, another collective-action problem may be damning the Republicans to a worse fate yet. If the Trump candidacy has no chance of winning or holding close, Republican turnout may collapse, thereby endangering party control of many lower political offices.

Republican turnout, and thus electoral success, might be helped if all the Republicans simply pretended that the Trump gaffe hadn’t happened. But politicians often look to their own self-interest. After Trump appears unacceptable enough in the eyes of enough relevant voters, political candidates and other party members will seek to distance themselves from him so they can try to rebuild their reputations once Trump is no longer on the ballot. You might say those individuals are finally doing the right thing, but under another reading a lot of them are acting in their personal self-interest yet again, and again to the detriment of the Republican Party (though perhaps not the American citizenry).

In other words, the Republicans have been on the wrong side of game-theory logic twice, first in delaying their opposition and then later in enacting it. Those are hardly examples of getting Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor to work in their favor. (On Saturday, my Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle spelled this out nicely on Twitter.)

And might the collective-action disasters be upped yet another notch? Imagine if a more formal coup is attempted against Trump. There are plenty of debates over what is possible this late in the election cycle, but it seems hard to pull off an effective switch in candidates without the consent of Trump himself, if it is possible at all.

Thus, some Republicans might first try to tear Trump down and then dangle some attractive options if he leaves the scene. (“How about a new business partnership?”) What might be the incentive of a possibly selfish, profit-maximizing Trump? Well, in the interests of getting an even better deal, he might not go immediately and quietly into the night.

(Corrects day when the Trump videotape became public in fifth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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