NORMAN, Okla., 5:50 p.m. — Considering what many voters perceive as the often disingenuous, self-interested and intricate nature of modern political campaigns, it is no surprise that game theorists — those who study strategic interactions between agents — have turned to American politics as a field ripe with opportunities for analysis.
Yale’s own Justin Fox, a professor in the Political Science Department, applies microeconomics to his study of the interactions between politicians and voter behavior. In a phone interview with the News on Monday, he illuminated some of the more interesting applications of game theory in the current campaign season.
Fox started by explaining the role of fundraising and interest groups in politicians’ stands on major issues. A typical academic paper may explain how politicians find it in their interest to alter their positions in order to attract more money, he said.
“There may not be any explicit corruption going on, but … the fundraising is distorting how politicians behave,” Fox said.
So, according to game theory, it is demonstrably rational to alter one’s behavior in order to bring in more money. But what role does public opinion play? What about politicians like Mitt Romney, who has been accused of changing his positions to make himself more palatable to the Republican electorate?
“I think people see through it, right? I think that’s why he has trouble getting traction —it’s too obvious,” Fox said. “Giuliani’s sort of doing the same thing, but I think it looks less artificial. I don’t think there’s any good data on whether public opinion is a stronger determinant of a candidate’s position than the ability to raise campaign funds. Candidates are going to face tradeoffs when balancing these two goals.”
There are certainly limits to game theory — Fox readily admits as much. It’s especially true in examining voter behavior. While most talking heads and academics decry America’s low voter turnout, game theorists are amazed that most people even show up to vote at all — it just isn’t rational. It’s what’s called the “paradox of voting.”
“If your vote doesn’t make or break a tie, your vote doesn’t affect anything. So why do people vote? These models of voting behavior suggest that turnout should be much smaller than what we actually see,” Fox said.
But over the past 20 years, Fox said there has been a trend toward trying to complicate game-theory models of voter behavior to account for intangibles like patriotism or peer pressure.
Despite its limitations, game theory can offer some useful ways to explain the slippery aspects of the primary season — how Iowa voters affect those in New Hampshire, for example.
“Why would voters in New Hampshire care about what happened in Iowa?” Fox asked. “Voters see the election results in Iowa and say to themselves, ‘Those voters in Iowa have had a lot of experiences with candidates in the last few weeks’ … and so we update our beliefs about the attributes of the candidates. That’s sort of an economic model of momentum. Another [theory] is more of a psychological theory, where you just sort of get a warm glow from supporting the winner.”
The most recent development in the primary season — the touting of “change” as the most important quality in a potential president — can also be explained in terms of game theory, Fox said.
“The [candidates are] constantly trying to anticipate the others’ strategic moves and to nullify their perceived advantages,” he said. “You can see that all the candidates, Democrats and Republicans, are talking about being the candidate of change. So Obama and Huckabee were donned the agents of change, and now all the candidates are talking about that issue to nullify that advantage.”