A Giant Game of Chicken

From Patrick O'Connor at The Wall Street Journal:

“It’s not too late today, but time is running short,” said Katie Packer, executive director of Our Principles PAC, whose business partners have done work for Mr. Trump’s rivals. “If we don’t act now, we’re running out of runway.”

Source: Donald Trump’s Republican Foes Step Up Efforts to Defeat Him

Donald Trump just won the Nevada Republican Primary at a margin of 45.9% to Marco Rubio's 23.9% and Ted Cruz's 21.4%. This is Trump's third straight win (the previous two being in South Carolina and New Hampshire). By now, the time has long passed to laugh him off.

When Trump entered the race, everyone was convinced that his run wasn't going to go anywhere. Jeb Bush, brother of the most recent Republican president and son of the Republican president before him, had a Super PAC that had raised in excess of $100 million. What chance did Trump have?

I don't think any other the other campaigns considered his appeal, or why he could attract as much attention as he did. In hindsight (and I'll just speak the obvious here), this was incredibly stupid.

Trump has always been a media star. His show, The Apprentice, was one of the most popular reality segments for years. As a Presidential candidate in the age of memes, your follower count matters more than how many families you know in the Hamptoms. A ballroom gala where you raise $10 million dollars isn't a success. It means absolute shit in 2016.

And great, let's say you do have some money. You don't spend that on crappy TV advertisements that look like they were made in the 80s. Gosh darnit, people (is my hand-wringing coming across here?), who even watches TV anymore?

Alright, whatever, let's say your dead-set on making a video (TV is a dead word, don't say it or use it). Here's what you do: buy a Super Bowl spot (yes, too late, sorry) and/or upload it to YouTube. Make it super high production quality, hire a few small firms that specialize in making funny videos, and make some viral skits. Put them on YouTube, buys ads on Facebook, and gasp buy some Adwords. Show your voters that you're not just a person in a suit reading off a policy agenda on a podium. Yes, policy is incredibly important, but we're in an age where you need to show your potential voters that you're human, and relatable.

We're obsessed with tldr;, witty tweets, and memes. Candidates of 2016, that's your competition, not the other suits standing next to you at the debates.

By now, it should be obvious to you why Trump is winning.

His success has very little to do with people being angry and more to do with how jaded and banal our society is. He's taken advantage of the way the American hive-mind thinks and acts.

Those of us sitting on the ivory tower levy claims that America is ignorant or stupid; the irony is that the converse holds more truth. We're quite blissfully unaware of what life is like for a large number of Americans. Frankly, those with the money are used to being able to wield it to push agendas. Internet access has essentially re-enfranchised huge parts of the populace to make decisions and rally around a cause in a way that would have been unfathomable only a mere decade ago. Sarah Palin showed us that 8 years ago. Now the reality is back with a vengeance.

Another component of this is that Trump has taken advantage of what is essentially a giant game of chicken between the other candidates. Trump might be current leader in delegate counts, but he loses by large margins when pitted head-to-head against Cruz and Rubio.

What's happening is that the Republican party is not really one party; it's two. One of those parties has set on Trump as their candidate. The other party is split between Cruz, Rubio, and all the others. The unfortunate truth is that unless Cruz or Rubio drops out before Super Tuesday, Trump will probably get the nomination.

What's so, so frustrating is that we're seeing a real-world example of the Prisoner's Dilemma in action. What's normally an interesting intellectual discussion in college economics is now influencing the fate of the United States.

I'll lay out the dilemma as if you've never heard of it before. Imagine two prisoners—A and B—both caught for the same crime. They're sitting in their individual cells, each being interrogated. There's limited proof of their crime, so if they both stay silent, their sentences will be minimal. However, there's a chance that A could rat out B. If that happens, B gets punished severely, for both lying under oath and committing a crime. A is let go. Vice-versa if B rats out A. If they both betray each other, it's clear they both committed the crime and they'll both be sentenced.

The dilemma is that betrayal is the best strategy for getting the best outcome. The problem is that both players know this, and it essentially becomes a game of chicken. Who will fold first?

All it takes for Trump to lose is for either Cruz or Rubio to leave the race. However, leaving the race precludes that individual's best outcome (becoming president). Both candidates staying in is equivalent to them ratting the other out: they'll both lose.

What we need is for one of them to make a deal with the other. If one of them doesn't do this soon, the game is over, and Trump will win the nomination. One of them has to take the risk.

If none of this happens, and Trump does win the nomination, there is still hope. Michael Bloomberg is still weighing the decision of running as an Independent. If that happens, we're headed towards a very interesting November ballot.