Last week, Nate Silver ran a nice piece on Rick Perry not dropping out of the GOP nomination race, examining whether Perry’s decision was personal/emotional or strategic, and discussing the consequences of each possibility. Jonathan Bernstein distilled and augmented the argument, helpfully framing Perry’s motivation as either personal, strategic but wrong (i.e. thinks he can still win but can’t), or strategically sound. I don’t really disagree with anything in either post, but I think there is some value in taking a wider view of these sorts of political choices; both Nate’s and Jonathan’s analysis implicitly convey that Perry’s strategic reason to stay in was “winning the nomination.” This, I would suggest, artificially constrains how we should think about political goals, institutional incentives, and strategic choices made by political actors.
First, some theoretical considerations. A large proportion of political actions — perhaps all — can be made either sincerely or strategically. A sincere political action can be thought of as one which is undertaken to achieve the plainly obvious outcome: a citizen stands for election because he wants to win the office, a voter pulls the lever for the candidate because he wants him to hold the office, a legislator introduces a bill because he wants it to become a law, a committee holds a hearing on the bill to gather information about it, a majority party brings the bill to the floor because they want to enact it, another legislator offers an amendment to the bill because he wants to improve the legislation, a Senator speaks at length on the measure in order to articulate his position and win some converts to it, the President issues a veto threat because he doesn’t like the legislation, and 240 legislators vote in favor and 195 vote against it because the policy is either good or bad for their constituents.
Strategic political actions, on the other hand, make use of sincere mechanisms in order to achieve alternative ends: a citizen stands for election because he wants to raise his business’ profile in the community, a voter pulls the lever for the candidate because he wants to send a signal to a misbehaving dominant party, a legislator introduces a bill in order to lay down a position marker on an important policy, a committee holds a hearing in order to garner publicity for a policy position, a majority party brings a bill to the floor in order to force a difficult vote upon the minority, a legislator offers an amendment in order to make a bill unpalatable to current supporters, a Senator speaks at length on the measure in order to prevent a final vote, the President issues a veto threat to enhance his bargaining leverage over parts of the bill, and numerous legislators vote for or against a bill in order to win leadership or other support for their own legislative priorities.
There are those — particularly novice political observers — who bristle at strategic use of the institutional rules of the political system, but there’s no reason to be alarmed about it. Democratic systems of government are in the business of harnessing self-interest for the common good, and self-interest on the part of voters and elected officials who represent those voters implies taking maximum advantage of the available choices. To do anything less as a voter would be sub-optimal for your interests; to do anything less as a legislator would be sub-optimal representation for your constituents. Besides, there’s no cure. Sincere and strategic actions look identical; no set of rules that govern political behavior can eliminate strategic action. Even if you could, removing those motivations would be akin to removing the profit motive from a market economy. If the preferences of the voters or legislators are resulting in sub-optimal policy outcomes, blaming political actors for strategic use of the institutional rules misses the point; it is the rules themselves that are the problem, not the actors.
While most of the above is more or less obvious, it is often disregarded when observers assess the political strategies of presidential primary candidates and offer advice on the same. Read enough political commentary and you start to get the sense that politicians simply aren’t very good at decision-making. Why did Tim Pawlenty drop out of the GOP race so early? He could be winning right now. What is Rick Perry still doing in the race? He has no chance. Why was Herman Cain campaigning in Alabama in November? He should have been setting up a field operation in Iowa. Why won’t anyone attack Romney on the issue of health care? It’s his Achilles heel. Why does Ron Paul have no presence in South Carolina? He can’t just skip early states. Such criticism is sometimes correct — politicians are human and make many errors — and sometimes wrong — commentators make lost of errors, too. And defaulting to incompetence is often a better bet than bestowing strategic brilliance.
Many times, however, the criticisms are not right or wrong; instead, they simply miss the mark because they aren’t aiming at the right target. A very simple theory of political action says that strategy is derived from goals, rules, and resources. Once you know the latter three things, you can rationally arrive at optimal strategy for any situation, at least in theory (and allowing for personal/emotional biases that often affect such decisions). The problem in the case of presidential primary nominations, however, is that a lot of critics assume the candidates are behaving sincerely with respect to the goal — i.e. trying to win the nomination — when in reality many candidates are behaving strategically in seeking the nomination, and are actually trying to achieve some other goal. Without knowing what those alternative goals are, it is very hard to both judge candidate choices, as well as offer advice.
The bottom line is there are lots of reasons to run for President of the United States, and only one of them is to become President of the United States. There’s a long list of alternative reasons: to get picked Vice President of the United States; to raise awareness for an issue; to represent a regional and/or radical ideology; to become a Secretary in the next President’s cabinet; to join the list of potential candidates four years later; to expand your network of fundraising; to challenge your party’s orthodoxy on one or more issue; to increase your private sector market value as a commentator or author. And so on and so forth.
People seem to intuitively understand this about certain candidates. Ron Paul, for example. While I’m sure Mr. Paul would love to be President, most people are in agreement that his current purpose is to influence the Republican party in a libertarian direction, and to raise awareness of particular libertarian issues. But people often understand this and still disregard the strategic implications: since Paul is not actually trying to win the Presidency, his decision-making calculus at any step in the process may result in radically different strategic choices, choices that may even look utterly absurd to an observer who naively assumes Paul is trying to win the nomination. Same thing with what Jonathan Chait calls the business-plan candidates: if you are primarily running for major party nomination as a way to enhance your private-sector ambitions, your campaign might, for example, take a national tact rather than one that reflect the serial calendar of primary states. Again, this may look strategically absurd to unaware observers.
People often make similar mistaken assumptions about the goals of candidates who are primarily running for the sincere reason of trying to win the nomination and the Presidency. A lot of strategic advice from observers tends to not only assume the sincere goal is the true goal, but also that the sincere goal is the only goal. And consequently, the criticism and advice offered to the candidates reflects a win-at-all-costs mentality that simply doesn’t exist among most candidates. Again, on one level most people intuitively understand this: candidates for primary nomination have at least one secondary goal in mind — winning the general election — that constrains their possible actions. And so people usually build that fact into their strategic advice. But as mentioned above, there are dozens of reasons to run for President, and all of those reasons can be fallback goals for people primarily trying to win the nomination. And therefore a lot of the no-holds-barred aggressive advice you hear (and this is applicable across many political situations) doesn’t compute: politics is a repeated game, and slash-and-burn techniques tend to work poorly in the long-run.
And so virtually all campaign decisions, from the macro (whether and when to drop out) to the most micro (how hard to attack the frontrunner during the foreign policy portion of the debate) are colored, at least in part, by goals that are not only unrelated to winning the nomination, but also are not known to the public. Which, in turn, makes it supremely difficult to judge the tactical choices being made by the candidates. Even when potential alternative goals are known, there’s no way to judge how candidates weigh them against each other. Ron Paul may run as a third-party candidate in order to achieve the goal of influencing major party policy, but what if one of his goals is getting his son elected President someday? Does that affect his strategic calculation? Maybe. Jon Huntsman may want to be President, but he may also like to serve in the Romney administration. Does that constrain his strategy in next week’s debate? Again, quite plausibly. Rick Perry almost certainly would like to be President, but he might also have policy preferences that can be advanced by either helping a particular candidate get elected, or by trading his influence to help any given candidate get elected.
And none of these thoughts are mutually exclusive. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Perry coming out of Iowa thinking well, it’s really long odds now, but that’s better than nothing, and definitely better than the embarrassment of dropping out. And besides, if I stay in at least I might be able to prevent that pompous Gingrich from winning South Carolina. And that wouldn’t be the worst chit to have in my pocket during the Romney administration, especially if I can influence his immigration policies. In my personal experience, this sort of deep political strategizing is more common than most observers think. Candidates at all levels of politics can be romantics about their chances of winning far past the point of any viability; anyone who gets this far almost certainly feels like fate is on their side. But most candidates can also credit their career success to harnessing opportunities and salvaging victories even in defeat. And all of this serves to remind us how complicated political strategy can be, and how little we can sometimes say absent a full understanding of the goals of the actors.