Friday, July 2, 2010

Applying game theory to political campaigns

For much of the past 7-8 months, I helped a local candidate for congress run for office. It was a wonderful opportunity to take the game theory principles I teach and attempt to apply them to the real world. In the end, my candidate lost, getting a very respectable 28% of the vote in a 3-person race despite being outspent by both of the other candidates (and by over 4-1 by the winner).

Some very practical things I learned out on the campaign trail:

1. Staying on message is crucial. The campaign is a fight for ideas. The candidate I supported did well despite the money disadvantage because he was always going back to the 3-4 key points that he wanted voters to remember. Most voters won’t have time to concern themselves with dozens of policy positions so will make their choice based on a few issues.

2. These key points should simultaneously:

a. Point out strengths of the candidate.

b. Imply weaknesses of the other candidates.

c. Be general enough that a majority of voters will look at these favorably.

3. If you are a candidate, being a “full time” candidate (i.e., not having a day job) is a big benefit.

4. Having full time help to coordinate volunteers/support is crucial in a big district.

5. Personalized phone calls are huge. They are time consuming, but huge. We did personalized phone calls to several counties – mostly around the home district. We did great there. We also made calls to individuals in one smaller outlying county, and it probably gained several extra percentage points of the vote. Getting volunteers early is crucial.

Overall, it was really a great experience for my first dip into politics. It helped that I worked for a really great person who was running, so my time wasn’t just an academic exercise: I also felt like I was doing a service to society by helping out this candidate.

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