“This is Bernie Sanders!”
“Hi, Bernie, it’s Liz.”
“Elizabeth! Great work on Mike! We will show the billionaire class what—”
“Bernie, everyone thinks you’ll have the most delegates when the convention comes.”
“Well, sure. That said, there are many contests left and a lot—”
“We should talk about what happens when you don’t get a majority.”
“… I think that if you look at the numbers, our odds are pretty, pretty—”
“They might be, in which case we don’t need to have had this talk. But in the world where you come up even one delegate shy, what do you think’ll happen?”
“For the good of the party, the majority of the superdelegates will have to support the candidate who won the most delegates.”
“Seven hundred and seventy one of them, all chosen and backed by the … what do you call them in your mailers, ‘the Democratic establishment’?”
“ … ”
“Yeah, I thought so. OK, here’s what I propose. We right now, before South Carolina, make a public pledge that whichever of us gets the most delegates going into the convention, the other’s delegates will be pledged to support that person. We create a supercandidate.”
“Hmm. Hypothetically, let’s say I’m interested. How would that work exactly?”
“You know those delegates you won in Iowa? Do you know their names?”
“No one knows their names. They haven’t been— Oh. Oh, I see.”
“Precisely. Because the elections for delegates in states that have voted aren’t scheduled until April or later, we have time to make sure that delegates pledged to us agree to this pact. I even wrote up a contract for them. I’ll text it to you.”
“If you wrote it, Elizabeth, I’m sure it’s bulletproof. So your delegates would vote for me if I don’t have enough to win outright. That creates a pool of delegates that can’t be taken away from us. I can see how that would work. But, and I don’t know how to say this delicately…”
“How do I know you’ll have enough delegates to make our total add up to a majority on the first ballot?”
“You don’t. I might only have a few hundred.”
“You just know I’ll have seven hundred and seventy one superdelegates on my side when they’re allowed to vote in the second ballot.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you will be tearing the Democratic establishment down all the way to the convention. They will hate you.”
“You’re damn right I will! But then I wonder, why would they support our, what did you call it, ‘supercandidate’? They won’t want me to win any more than they do now.”
“That’s correct. They’ll be supporting me for president, not you.”
“But I’ll have more delegates!”
“And you’ll be the nominee if we win on the first ballot. But if we don’t, I’ll be the nominee on the second. Since I’ll have all your delegates and all the superdelegates, I will win. But only if it gets that far. If we do this deal, you’ll get a much better chance to be the nominee on the first ballot in exchange for a near-certainty of me being the nominee if it gets to the second. It’s a win-win.”
“Why won’t some of the super-delegates support, say, Amy?”
“Because I called her before I called you. I told her that I would lay off her during the remaining debates if she agreed to bind her delegates to me if she drops out. And I told her that if she didn’t like that idea, I would call Pete.”
“Of course you did. So … the vice presidency?”
“Whoever doesn’t get the nom gets first crack at it. They can say yes or no.”
“Bernie, this comes with a cost. You’ll need to tell your supporters about our agreement—and obviously, you should leave some of these details out. But it must be clear that if any of your surrogates attack me or call me a snake or anything, they are immediately evicted from the campaign. That’s at any level, from your strategy center to your street organization.”
“Elizabeth, you know some of my people. I can’t guarantee that—”
“Any of them, Bernie. Or I tell Joe our deal is off and I’ll pledge my delegates to him.”
“We can win this, you know. We haven’t been fighting for the American people for this long, just to roll over now.”
“It has been a long fight, it’s true.”
“I’m glad to be your friend, Bernie.”
“I’m happy not to be your enemy, Elizabeth.”
“Ha. I’ll take it. I’ll send over the paperwork.”
“I’m sure it will be exhilarating reading.”
“Now, let’s talk about our Senate seats when we get to the White House. How did we both end up with Republican governors?”
“I’ll bet you have a plan for this too.”
“Well, now that you mention it …”
And … scene. I hope you enjoyed my one-act play, The Progressive Voltron.
Now I want to talk about collusion. It’s such an unfashionable word these days. When Trump does it, we want to put him in jail, and deservedly so. But collusion isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s just called “partnership.” We want pur leaders to unite for the betterment of all. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s only collusion when it’s done by people we oppose.
Collusion is an agreement between suppliers to avoid competition either by price fixing or market sharing. The goal is to achieve a level of joint profits similar to that which would be gained by a pure monopolist. We can all agree that monopolies are usually bad for consumers, and always bad for competitors. But in an environment where monopoly is a likely outcome—that is, when the lack of collusion allows the monopolist to crush all competition—collusion between those who don’t gain by the monopoly becomes a desirable option. It may or may not be a legal option, but what is legal seems to be changing on a daily basis.
I’ll reduce the concept to a game of poker with three players. The Big Stack has $5000. The Medium Stack has $2000. The Little Stack has $1500. Even if the Medium Stack goes all-in against the Big Stack, she still can’t get ahead, because she can only win what she can bet. So the two smaller stacks wait till the Big Stack folds a mediocre hand, then the Little Stack intentionally loses $1000 to the Medium Stack in exchange for an agreement to split the pot if they are the final two players. Now it’s $5000/$3000/$500. The Medium Stack repeatedly goes all-in against the Big Stack until the Big Stack bites. If the Medium Stack wins, the formerly Big Stack is crushed 3-to-1 against the new chip leader. This is a win-win for both players who were trailing before.
It’s also flat-out illegal in casinos. This is called “chip dumping,” and it destroys the integrity of the game. Yet it definitely happens, especially since the rise of online poker, where identities are hard to gauge, and “poker teams,” who work together to get their members profits. When the casinos and poker sites catch someone doing this, they ban both the person dumping the chips and the recipient of the chips.
It’s not illegal in every game, though. Drafting is a common practice in NASCAR, involving a racer tailing behind a teammate to conserve fuel by letting the lead racer suffer the wind resistance. Also common is bumping, where a teammate physically pushes the leader at the cost of their own fuel. But it’s not okay for a driver to wreck an opponent just so his teammate can scoot ahead. Racing has found the sweet spot between banning collusion and embracing it.
Our politics barely have any rules at all. When they exist, the motives of the crafters must be weighed. For example, superdelegates are a uniquely Democratic maleficence. In the 1980s, the Democratic National Committee designed the superdelegate concept to avoid unelectable candidates like 1972’s George McGovern or Jimmy Carter in 1980. The party created the concept of PLEO delegates—Party Leaders and Elected Officials. This new 14% of delegates would put the brakes on a marginal candidate winning a nomination, embracing the concept of “the party decides.”
By 2008 the PLEO percentage had metastasized to 20% of all delegates, roughly equal to the elected delegates of the three largest states, California, New York, and Texas. That is one hell of a large “state.” In 2016, Hillary Clinton went into primary season with almost all of them. Sanders would’ve not only needed to beat her in delegates, but done so handily. Even a 55% win wouldn’t have guaranteed Bernie the nom. (He got 46%.)
This ghastly quote from DNC chairwoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz to Jake Tapper has been ringing in my head for four years.
“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grass-roots activists. We, as a Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grass-roots activists and diverse committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend and be a delegate at the convention. And so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.”
Even I, a diehard Clinton supporter, knew this was poison. Because of how unfair this was, after 2016 the Democrats agreed to keep superdelegates out of play on the first ballot, which means that if one candidate shows up with a majority 1,991 of the 3,979 pledged delegates or more, they just win. If not, they have to win 2,376 of all 4,750 delegates, including superdelegates, on the second or subsequent ballot.
(Republicans don’t have superdelegates per se. Each state gets three unpledged nominators, but they must vote the way the state voted. Still, superdelegates might become a GOP institution if Trump loses. In 2016, Republicans lost control of their party to the mob when Trump swamped the field. Some mainstream Republicans may wish to avoid that in the future. If there are any mainstream Republicans left, that is. But this column isn’t about them.)
With today’s caucuses in Nevada representing merely the third state to vote, Democrats are already tiring of having so many candidates. Lots of voters were even willing to back a billionaire who didn’t even enter the first four contests. At least until Wednesday. Mike Bloomberg’s implosion on live TV at Warren’s hands cost him 30 points (!) of favorability with moderate Democrats. Yet that may not be enough to stop him.
That is because of the obscene amount of money being poured into this election. It is an election being bought by billionaires. This can’t be stopped. Citizens United and other decisions made it impossible to thwart the flow of dollars. So get used to the idea that the election will be bought. You can react to that in two ways: You can fling up your hands, sneer your lips, and storm off into the night. Or you can buy it yourself.
We’re watching a three-way battle between three billionaires, except only two of them are real billionaires. Bloomberg and Tom Steyer—both potent crusaders for climate sanity and getting guns off streets, to be fair—are putting their money where their mouths are, contributing almost $600 million between them into their vanity campaigns. Steyer at least takes other people’s contributions, meager as they may be. Bloomberg famously takes no contributions (at least so far), projecting an air that he, unlike democracy itself, cannot be bought. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is anything but a billionaire, and is not self-funding his campaign. But his cronies in Trump’s campaign headquarters The Death Star (yes, that’s its name) are planning to spend a billion dollars—that’s illion with a b—on a massive disinformation campaign to guarantee his reelection.
Some billionaires hope to pump the campaigns of non-billionaire Democratic candidates. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have both accepted quite a lot from billionaires, though the numbers pale next to Steyer and Bloomberg’s self-contributions. The good news, if you’re not a fan of billionaires, is that the non-Steyer/Bloomberg billionaires are split between Biden and Buttigieg. You can even make a case that billionaires are underinvesting in politics, because of the results they get. (In general, millionaires and billionaires should not fund themselves running, because they almost always lose. But when they invest well, their dollars do talk.)
Where does that leave ordinary people? If you’re reading this, I expect you’re not a billionaire. But it’s okay. You can still become one. All you need to do is contribute as much as you can to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. With his average $12 per contribution, Sanders raised $108,379,982 through the fourth quarter of 2109. Warren isn’t far behind with $81,291,562. That’s a fifth of a billion dollars combined. It’s a lot of money, about equal to the spending in the entire 1992 election. But whichever of them wants to win will have to raise a lot more. To win the nomination against billionaires, they’ve got to at least triple that. To win the general, the Democratic candidate will need a billion dollars.
Warren and Sanders’ hauls, almost entirely on the backs of individuals, suggest they could get there. The rub is that only one of them at most can win. All the cash spent on the non-winner is wasted. Well, not wasted. You still have the candidate out there discussing corruption and Medicare 4 All and whatever. That’s good. But you want your candidate to win.
That’s why the Liz/Bernie Voltron scenario I played out above makes sense. In that world, neither candidate’s backers are wasting money. They’re betting on an outcome with a higher chance of success than just betting on one of the two. Together, the Warren-Sanders bloc has raised $200 million-plus. They could raise a lot more. With your help, you and millions of your friends can become a billionaire. If you don’t want to—if you just want to support your factional candidate and hope for the best—that’s up to you. But the billionaires are going to collude no matter what you do. Bloomberg said so onstage at the debate. He’s working to poach delegates from Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg against the candidates’ will. He’s in mergers and acquitions; he knows how to Voltron.
Will “collusion” like this ever happen on the left? No idea. There is a lot of ego in this race. I don’t see either Warren or Sanders making the phone call first. Both of them should. If they don’t, they can’t complain when they both lose. They will, of course. But they’ll know the opportunity to win passed them by. Because I just told them. Maybe you should too.
This is the 53rd installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, and Bernie Sanders. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.