How Game Theory Could Decide the Election It's likely both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton will reach the Democratic convention shy of the delegates needed to win the party nomination. Offering strategic advice for victory is Jim Miller, Smith College professor and author of Game Theory at Work: How to Use Game Theory to Outthink and Outmaneuver Your Competition.

How Game Theory Could Decide the Election

How Game Theory Could Decide the Election

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It's likely both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will reach the Democratic convention shy of the delegates needed to win the party nomination. Offering strategic advice for victory is Jim Miller, Smith College professor and author of Game Theory at Work: How to Use Game Theory to Outthink and Outmaneuver Your Competition.

Miller's discipline is about strategy, about plotting behavior for the best outcome while anticipating your opponent's moves. The game of becoming president, Miller says, is more desperate for Clinton than Obama, because he says Clinton will almost certainly end the primary season trailing in delegate numbers. It's a delicate dance, because by June, even as overall delegate numbers will be clear and irrefutable, the truth is that a close total will eventually be brokered by the so-called super delegates, a several-hundred strong body of the party's leaders, who will each make a secret selection at the convention.

Miller mocks the conventional wisdom. "Gee," he says, mimicking the average prediction, "the super delegates will do what's best for the party." In reality, he says, these super delegates are party members with their own careers at stake. And they have to choose between candidates who wield considerable power. In other words, Obama and Clinton may not reward you for your vote, but both might punish you if you don't vote. Miller's conclusion: A candidate perceived as a vindictive person is more likely to be rewarded with support. "And Clinton is perceived as being a much tougher fighter."

Another way to fight, Miller says, is to talk strategically about the future. Clinton, for one, is making a big deal about Obama making an excellent vice president, which, Miller says, is a sly way to undermine his status as frontrunner. Obama has been mum so far, but Miller says the senator would be wise to say he would never take the vice president spot. Obama's best strategy, Millers says, is instead to convince Democrats the nomination would mean nothing if he, the almost-certain delegate leader, doesn't win. Obama could "poison" the prize of the nomination by starting to plant seeds the outcome might be illegitimate. He could also begin saying that if super delegates hand Clinton the nomination, he'll run as a third-party candidate. "He might not actually say he won't back Clinton [and the Democratic party] if she's given the nomination, but his surrogates could." And those surrogates may already be hard at work. Last week, Obama adviser Samantha Power called Clinton a "monster" in a press interview, which was followed shortly by Power's resignation. "This was perceived as a mistake," Miller says. "But it was a very good strategy, a signal that [Obama's] people really, really hate the Clintons." He says it sends a message to the party that Obama and his people will never support Clinton.

Miller says Florida and Michigan put Obama in a difficult situation. He obviously benefits if they don't rerun the contests. But given the controversy surrounding Florida in 2000, Obama must talk about counting every vote, Miller says. But at the same time, Millery says, Obama's team should behind the scenes be devising solutions that count no votes. Clinton, meanwhile, would do best to engineer an outcome that not only counts the votes, but awards all of Florida and Michigan's votes to the winner. "If she could slip winner-take-all in," Miller says, "she could easily have a majority of the pledged delegates."

No matter what happens, Miller says, "It's not a zero sum game. They're both young enough to run four or eight years from now."