Prisoner’s Dilemma and presidential campaigns

I introduced my microeconomics class today to game theory. Doing so gave me an opportunity to explain why US presidential campaigns are filled with so much hateful and ugly rhetoric. Why can’t politicians be nicer, speak to the issues, and avoid the hurling of mud at their political opponents? Why do we see so many negative campaign adds? Game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma, provides insight here. In a previous post I described briefly what the Prisoner’s Dilemma is.


Consider this figure, which depicts the campaign strategies of Donald Trump (“Trump”) and Hillary Clinton (“Hillary”). Trump and Hillary can be nice or mean. If both are nice and avoid negative campaigning, they each split the Electoral College (EC) votes, with one getting a few more than the other for a win. The same outcome occurs if both play mean and nasty and spew hateful rhetoric at the other, but now the tone of the campaign is harsh and leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. With 270 EC votes needed to win, as of this writing Trump was declared the winner with 279 EC votes. Thus they split the EC with Trump getting a few more but doing so with a very negative campaign–an inferior outcome for everyone.

If Trump is nice and takes the high road but Hillary is mean, she will get most of the EC votes. Similarly, if Hillary takes the high road while Trump is mean, he will win most of the EC. In other words, negative campaigning works, which is why both have an incentive to campaign negatively. That is, both Trump and Hillary have a dominant strategy to sling mud. Regardless of whether Hillary is nice or mean, Trump is better off being mean and campaigning negatively–when Hillary is nice, for Trump getting most of the EC by being mean is better than getting about half by being nice, and when Hillary is mean, getting about half of the EC by being mean is better than getting only a few EC votes by being nice. Similarly, regardless of whether Trump is nice or mean, Hillary is better off being mean and campaigning negatively. This produces a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma outcome.

Most people will prefer that the candidates remain nice and civil during the campaign. For example, the Pew Research Center said this (here) about this year’s presidential campaign: “The presidential campaign is widely viewed as excessively negative and not focused on important issues. Just 27% of Americans say the campaign is “focused on important policy debates,” which is seven points lower than in December, before the primaries began.” Interestingly, a 2000 Gallup survey found that “negative campaigning [is] disliked by most Americans” and that most people felt that the presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush “may be one of the most negative presidential elections in recent history.” Maybe every presidential contest is the worst one in history.

But since the game candidates play is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, the expected and actual outcome is one in which both are mean and nasty.

How do we resolve the Prisoner’s Dilemma in this case? Standard solutions that scholars have examined, such as repetition and institutional rules promoting cooperation and punishing defection, can’t apply or won’t work in political campaigns. The only seemingly viable option is for players of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to have high moral values so that they avoid the incentives to be mean to each other. If both players of this game are virtuous and possess high integrity, and each knows the other player is that way, then maybe we can see political campaigns and elections that are civil and informative.


Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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