Game Theory and Politics: What Mario Kart Can Teach Us About 2016

Because video games can analyze – and manipulate – human psychology so well, game theory gets a lot of attention these days – but it’s hardly a new field. Plato is supposed to have said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

We don’t know how Donald Trump plays games, but it’s probably similar to how he runs a political campaign.

Trump has consistently been winning polls for months now. We all thought he’d just be a bump in an otherwise slow summer news cycle, but that hasn’t proven the case. I remember telling people on a walk home from the fireworks on the Fourth of July, “Sure he’s winning polls right now, but this far ahead polls are only a sign of name recognition. This too shall pass…”

But it hasn’t. The primary voting starts in just a few months.

While Trump’s only ahead by 6 points in Iowa, his lead is 21 points in New Hampshire and 17 points in South Carolina. That kind of math adds up to a presidential nomination, leaving us to speculate:

How on Earth has this come to pass?

There is the narrative that voters (on both sides) are so fed up with the establishment that they’re flocking to Trump (and Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left). There’s certainly some truth there, but I think the answer returns to game theory. There are too many other more sensible alternatives to Trump for people to decide on one.

At his highest, Trump is getting 40 percent of the vote, which is clearly not a majority. But when the remaining 60 percent of are divided among ten other candidates, then Trump’s plurality is impossible to stop.

See when you have a competitive race and one person gets out a little bit ahead, and then everyone trailing can gang up on him and pull him back. But when someone REALLY gets out ahead, then the people in the back can only attack each other, allowing the winner to widen his lead.

In gaming, just like in politics, this phenomenon is frequently called “the rich get richer.”

Many games employ specific tactics to combat this phenomenon. In the popular Euro game Settlers of Catan, players can send “The Robber” at whoever gets ahead. But a much better example is from the hit Nintendo series Mario Kart: namely, the blue turtle shell, which homes in on whoever is in first place and shuts them down, allowing everyone behind to catch up.

Do Republicans have a blue turtle shell?

Two weeks ago this video dropped, featuring Trump explicitly voicing support for things like Obamacare, Hillary Clinton, and partial-birth abortion. No seriously – this thing is social media gold: Trump says he identifies more as a Democrat than a Republican and that his views are different than those of Iowans.


Put together by the Jeb Bush campaign, a lot of people thought this was going to finally stop Trump … notably, I suspect, Jeb Bush.

It doesn’t even have 1 million views yet.

Bush was the only one who seemed like he had the firepower to shoot Trump down – but Bush is in a dead-heat for third place right now. Everyone else is just waiting to vulture Trump’s 40 percent of voters rather than face him head-on, and so his lead continues. Without a blue turtle shell, the rest of the Republican pack is consigned to a distant second place, cannibalizing each other’s donors, volunteers, staff, and media time.

See the problem is we all thought that Trump’s blue turtle shell would be himself. He’d say or do something stupid, or just get bored like when Howard Stern ran for governor of New York, and then self-implode. But he hasn’t and at this point it seems like it’s probably not going to happen. Even if he loses Iowa, he’s still looking very strong in the subsequent two primaries.

But maybe Trump’s Achilles’ heel is hidden somewhere in the Trump board game. Here’s a review of it by my friend Chaz Marler.


After all, we could probably learn more about him from playing it for one hour than listening to him talk for a year.