Playing Chicken with the Republican Party: Game Theory, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio

I’ve been pleased to see some intelligent articles applying game theory to issues of great public interest. It is easy to understand the discipline of game theory (how to make optimal decisions in conditions of uncertainty) but a lot more difficult in practice. Nine game theorists have won Nobel Prizes for Economics — the first of whom, John Nash (1994) was the subject of the book and movie, A Beautiful Mind — but applying complex math to common situations comes with risks. As I explained in my previous blog, “Can You Use Game Theory to Choose Your Partner?,” a recent Washington Post Wonkblog about the Sultan’s Dowry was creative and interesting but ignored a key element of relationships leading to your choice of a partner: the candidates are not chosen at random.

The New York Times had an interesting (and more valid) game-theory analogy in a recent article titled, “Lessons From Game Theory: What Keeps Kasich in the Race?” With Jeb Bush out of the race, the two candidates of the Republican mainstream are Marco Rubio and John Kasich. The longer they both stay in the race, the less likelihood either has of getting the nomination. Rubio is running ahead of Kasich, but the article focuses on the unique power Kasich has as the trailing “establishment” candidate.

As described by in the article, Kasich and Rubio are playing a game of political “chicken.” I highly recommend the read for a great application of “chicken” strategy to the situation. A(nother simple, elegant version of this “chicken” led to one of the most compelling episodes in the history of game shows, “Golden Balls,” excerpted in a famous YouTube video.)

This political season is fascinating for studying decision-making behavior. The fourth-place candidate holds disproportionate power, but for how long and to what ends are uncertain.

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