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US Presidential Election: A Game Theorist’s Delight – Analysis

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By Shubh Soni

The 2016 US Presidential Election is a contest between a man who has little to lose and a woman whose entire career of thirty years in public service is at stake.

When Mr. Trump announced his intention to run for the presidency in 2016, it was widely regarded as a joke — maybe even a publicity stunt for his many business ventures. This sentiment was echoed as far back as 2011 when Donald Trump first claimed he wanted to run for the highest political office in the United States — comedian Seth Meyers, speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner remarked: “Donald Trump has been saying he will for a President as a Republican; which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

Throughout the primary process, Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy only added fuel to this narrative. By insulting not only his fellow Republican candidates, or his opponents in the Democratic party, but also his large sections of the US populace (Mexican immigrants, women, African-Americans), it seemed as though Mr. Trump had embraced a strategy which was unconventional to say the least.

Mrs. Clinton on the other hand is making a second and what could be her final attempt at becoming the first woman POTUS. Her desire to hold the office however predates 2008 elections which she lost to President Obama. This perception around not just Mrs. Clinton, but also her husband President Clinton, has been that here is a couple that would do anything to advance their careers. While comparisons to the fictional Underwoods (from the TV series House of Cards) might be too far-fetched, this perception has only gained steam due to the various scandals that have surfaced in the recent months — Mrs. Clinton using a private server; donations for the Clinton Foundation which were not disclosed to the State Department; President Clinton’s various transgressions and the cover-ups that followed, etc. Indeed, one the biggest proponents of this narrative, Christopher Hitchens, dedicated an entire book (cleverly titled No One Left to Lie to) to the Clintons.

Given this context, it was interesting to see the strategies adopted by the two candidates at the first presidential debate.

Trump vs. Clinton: Election strategies

Mr. Trump, having established a core base of supporters through the primary process, changed tact and attempted to be more “Presidential”. He refrained from calling his opponent ‘crooked’ (as he often does on social media); instead referring to her as Secretary Clinton. He also did not bring up President Bill Clinton’s transgressions during the debate (although post the debate he did make certain comments to media personnel). Secretary Clinton on her part stuck to the task of projecting herself as a woman ready to take on the presidency. She expressed how she had sound policies in place on a range of issues — from healthcare to ISIS — that would improve the lives of middle class Americans. On being provoked by Mr. Trump, she remarked she had not only prepared for the debate, but also the presidency.

These strategies adopted in the first debate however are not ideal for either of the two candidates.

Being “Presidential” does not come naturally to Mr. Trump. While he started the debate well, by constantly interrupting his opponent and showcasing her weaknesses, he was unable to keep-up with the pretence. Secretary Clinton gained significant ground as the debate progressed, and Mr. Trump ended the night on the defensive and his remark that he had a better temperament than his opponent received scoff and laughter. Donald Trump’s best strategy is to attack and he needs to stick to it. Having said that, he would have to be careful who exactly these attacks are against. Instead of targeting women and minority communities as he has done in the past (and as he has incorrectly done post the debate), his jibes need to be solely targeted at his opponent. There is enough fodder to feed the cattle and if he can get some of the undecideds, and the disgruntled millennials who so ardently supported Senator Bernie Sanders through the primary process, Mr. Trump has a serious chance at winning.

Given that she has a lot more to lose, the task before Mrs. Clinton is more difficult. While most analysts might say she won the first debate, what this election cycle has shown time and again is that analysts are not always right (and this election cycle, rarely right). And in a post-Brexit world, the saying — “anything can happen in politics” — is only truer.

Change agent: While the Obama Presidency has significantly revived the American economy from the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis, income inequality and the narrative of ‘occupy Wall Street,’ the one percent vs. the ninety nine percent, still reverberate among the voters, particularly the millennials. And while Mrs. Clinton carries baggage from her dealings with Wall Street, she can still come across as a strong change-agent. A smart move would be to give her former opponent Bernie Sanders an even bigger role in the final days of the campaign trail, and even echo some of his policy narratives. A Clinton-Sanders partnership is key for Mrs. Clinton in getting the millennial/young voter on board.

Humility and thirty years in public service: At the Democratic National Convention, President Bill Clinton made a stirring speech highlighting his wife’s achievements over the course of her career. Mrs. Clinton would be served well if she took this narrative forward and stressed repeatedly how from her early 20s to now, she has always been in touch with the average American, and tries her best to ensure each American has an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream. This message has to be put across with humility. An admission of certain errors in these thirty years may even help her campaign — after all, who in their career, be it in the private or public sector, doesn’t make mistakes? An attempt needs to be made to make a human connect with the voter.

Not afraid to lose: This is perhaps the trickiest of all steps and also perhaps the most important. A full disclosure, from emails, Clinton Foundation donations, wall-street speeches, to health records, will go a long way in building voter trust and reducing the impact of jibes from her opponents. It will also put pressure on Mr. Trump to disclose his financial dealings — something he has been avoiding for a while. And as comedian John Oliver has highlighted in his latest episode of Last Week Tonight, Mr. Trump has a lot more skeletons in his closet than Mrs. Clinton. This strategy will allow Mrs. Clinton to take control of a narrative she has so far been unable to shrug off.

What makes this election fascinating is that the best strategy for each of the respective candidates, is also their biggest weakness. A “non-Presidential” Donald Trump risks alienating large sections of society; a full disclosure by Mrs. Clinton on the other hand can give her opponent more material to target her with. Having said that, any strategy which deviates from the ones mentioned above, gives the candidates’ opponent a strong upper hand — Donald Trump cannot sustain being “Presidential”; Mrs. Clinton risks coming across as entitled should she stress too much on policy and her “readiness” for the job.

While election results are too difficult to predict, what is certain is that the US Presidential Election of 2016 makes a strong case to be included in game theory classes at universities across the world.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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