It’s Time for Some Game Theory

With the first voting of the Democratic primaries happening next week, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the actual effect your vote will have. To do that, we have to work backward from the nominating convention.

Barring any surprises (and there are always surprises), right now it looks like there are three plausible ways that the convention plays out:

  1. Joe Biden goes in with a majority of the pledged delegates, making him the nominee.
  2. Bernie Sanders goes in with a majority of the pledged delegates, making him the nominee.
  3. The Democrats have their first brokered convention since 1952.

The brokered convention scenario, a free-for-all where delegates can vote for whoever they want, is made somewhat more likely than in previous elections by post-2016 reforms to the rules (urged by the Sanders contingent) that exclude superdelegates from the first round of voting. That, combined with the large field of candidates and the vast ideological gulf between Biden and Sanders, will make it difficult for anyone to capture a majority.

Given that, who should you vote for?

If Biden or Sanders is your first choice, you’ve got it easy! Voting for your preferred candidate is strategically optimal.

Otherwise, you have some thinking to do. Every candidate but Biden or Sanders has only a narrow path to the presidency right now, one predicated on the aforementioned surprises. So you have to think strategically. The big question is: How will delegates pledged to your first-choice candidate act in a brokered convention? If the convention becomes a referendum on Biden vs. Sanders, which camp will they fall into?

Buttigieg and Klobuchar have largely campaigned on a return to normalcy, so it’s a fair bet that their delegates would back Biden (especially if their candidate is named as his running mate). The same probably goes for Yang, though his crowd is more eclectic, leaving more room for division.

Warren is a more interesting case. Throughout the election, she’s tried to straddle the ideological divide between Biden and Sanders, running on the worst proposed economic policies of any candidate in the adult lifetime of Tyler Cowen while assuring voters that she’s no socialist. According to one poll, 30% of her voters say Sanders is their second choice, vs. only 19% for Biden. So it seems likely that Warren’s delegates would lean toward Sanders, recent kerfuffles notwithstanding.

So should you vote your preference, knowing that your candidate has a narrow path to victory? At this early stage: Sure, why not. Very few delegates are at stake. (Iowans, vote for Pete!) But from Super Tuesday on, it should be clear who the top dogs are. If your preferred candidate isn’t one of them, then it’s a backdoor vote for someone else.


This is Part 8 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

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