Game Night with Mitch and Barack

The day after last week’s election, Vox ran this article titled Mitch McConnell may be the greatest strategist in contemporary politics.  Their argument was straightforward: If Obama was able to get things done while in office, and especially if he was able to do so with Republican support, he would look good, and that was ultimately bad for the republicans.  McConnell’s response was to dig his heels in and resist, he made use of the congressional calendar to grind the gears to a halt, slowing down the legislative process and making the democrats who held the presidency look unproductive.

The article reminded me of a famous example discussed by Game Theorist Frank Zagare that I encountered back in college.  For those unfamiliar, Game Theory is just a way of modeling how people – or “players” – are going to behave in a situation.

Zagare discussed in Game Theory: Concepts and Applications the situation in 1981 back when Ronald Reagan was president, and democrats controlled the house but were the minority in the senate.  Sound familiar? It was the same situation as we had in the past two years – only the roles of the parties were switched.

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Zagare included in his discussion the above diagram printed in a newspaper in 1981 that laid out the possible “pay-offs” for Reagan and the Republicans, and for the Democrats.  The pay-off grid above is easier to read than it may seem. The Republicans have two choices:  support Reagan or compromise, and those are laid out across the top.  The Democrats can attack Reagan or compromise, those are laid out on the side of the grid.  The intersection of those two choices tells you which box you end up in, and that tells what “pay-off” or reward each side gets.  Obviously parties want the biggest reward, so this grid can help you guess what each player will do.

Since the situations were nearly identical (One party held the white house and senate, the other held the house of representatives), I updated the grid to reflect today’s situation:

2014 Election Grid


This game is similar to what we call a “Chicken Game.”  The Democrats get their best pay-off when they support Obama completely, and convince the Republicans to cave in (top right box), and the Republicans get their best pay-off when they relentlessly attack Obama, and convince the Democrats to compromise (bottom right).  If no one compromises, they end up in the bottom left, and everyone would be worse off than if they both just compromised (top right).

It’s not a true “chicken game” though, because the Democrats, like Reagan back in 1981, had a “dominant strategy”.  Notice that no matter what the Republicans choose, the Democrats get a higher pay-off if they support Obama Completely.  Knowing this, it would be wise for the Republicans to give in, and support Obama a little bit, to avoid that bottom square and their worst pay-off.


Is that how it played out? Well, sort of.  These game diagrams like the one above are useful but they’re obviously oversimplified, politicians don’t just make one choice, they make many.  The 2013 shutdown was definitely an example of both parties ending up in the bottom left box.  A CNN poll shortly after the shutdown found that 75% of Americans believed that the republicans should not be reelected, while 54% believed the Democrats should not be reelected. Those percentages break down very similarly to the pay-offs in the bottom left box: both sides lose, but the Republicans, in theory, lost a bit more.

Someone had to cave in to re-open the government.  By most objective standards, it was the Republicans, after most polls throughout the shut down showed that they were earning more of the blame.  The Democrats made few concessions in the bill, a clean CR that kept Sequestration cuts in place and extended the debt limit deadline. “We fought the good fight,” Boehner said, ” We just didn’t win.”

So, just as the Democrats were forced to cave in to the steadfast Reagan back in 1981, Obama stood strong and the Republicans were forced to give up their demands in 2013.  In the election of 1982 the Democrats deepened their majority in the House, just as Republicans did in 2014, and the result in both cases was widely attributed to dissatisfaction with the President.  Yet, back in 1982,  the President’s party held the Senate.  Zagare praised Reagan for being a brilliant game theorist, moreso than Reagan’s advisors who had urged him to compromise.  Hadn’t Obama made the same play? Post shutdown the jury was out.  The game was about the same, the players acted about the same, so why did we end up at a different result?


It’s tough to pinpoint why things played out differently when the world has changed so much since 1982.  The obvious culprit may just be that the game is so oversimplified that it’s meaningless, and that Obama and Reagan are so fundamentally different that the comparison is absurd.  That may be the case, but what fun would it be to give up now? Here are a couple contributing factors that may tell part of the story:

One possibility is that Obama simply had less political capital to begin with.  Unlike Obama, Reagan never had to devote significant time to proving he was born a US citizen and eligible to be President.  In the Cold War era, few were going to hurl words like “fascist” at Reagan the way Obama’s been termed a “socialist.”  The Vox article mentioned that McConnell was successful at both obstructing the productivity of the Senate, and getting Obama and the Democrats to take the blame for perceived inaction.  It’s possible that intangibles about how people see the President caused voters to assign blame differently in 2014 than they did in 1982.

Besides this, things happened between the government shutdown and the 2014 election.  The roll-out was badly botched, sign-ups didn’t go smoothly, sites crashed, private insurers cancelled grandfathered plans that would have otherwise remained eligible.  Economic recovery has been slow.  Numerous foreign policy crises have arisen, and Obama may been seen as too weak in his handling of Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq.  Some may have wanted a stronger stance on Iran and Israel.  Also, Ebola is now, for some reason, apparently politically relevant.

The government shutdown was barely a year ago, but in light of all recent things that happened, it seems like a distant memory.  Literally, people have all but forgotten about that time when the US government completely stopped, because it was a bit over a year ago.

Cable News Network launched in October of 1980.  Back then there were no competitors until Financial News Network came about in 1981, and even then the two networks catered to different demographics.  There was no need to jazz up coverage to draw eye-balls away from competing news channels.  The internet did not exist. I was not alive back then, but feel I can safely assume that the role of news media in elections was quite different.

I think we can’t ignore the roll 24-hour news may play in increasing the importance of recency in voters’ minds.  Between cable news and internet news, it is easy to hit a point of saturation.The human capacity to prioritize information is limited, and daily saturation of information can easily push older things along the wayside.  I haven’t combed through the 2014 exit polls closely, but the biggest takeaway I’ve seen is that voters are generally dissatisfied at everything.

Obviously, turnout was a huge factor – it was low as it usually is in midterm elections and that generally favors Republicans.  Still, even amongst those who make it to the polls, I think it’s easily possible that after a year of being constantly told of things to be dissatisfied about, people simply forgot about the Government shutdown, it had to be pushed aside to make room for Ebola and missing airliners and resurgences of Cold War posturing.  In late 2013, people were very dissatisfied about the shutdown and they knew who they felt was to blame.  By late 2014, the effect had just faded.  People were still dissatisfied, but they were upset about different things and the old things didn’t matter.  The shutdown was a billion of tweets ago, and who has time to scroll back that far?