Trump and Pelosi trying to understand Nash Equilibrium

This is not a political blog, so I will not opine on the merits of impeachment. One thing this blog does do though is look at why people act the way they do. So, I think I have an interesting spin on what the “hidden message” is that the Democrats are sending by pursuing impeachment now.

A Timeline

First, it’s worth mentioning a pretty cool coincidence. The impeachment process against President Clinton began 9/24/98. The impeachment process against President Trump began 9/24/19. If you had both those in your office pool, congratulations!

Clinton was exonerated on February 12, 1999. I would think that is the fastest we could see the Trump proceedings end. Remember, the Clinton impeachment didn’t begin until after the Starr report (if you’re interested in the full timeline, see here). We haven’t even started an investigation yet. This case likely goes into the spring and maybe even summer.

Why is that relevant? Well, unlike 1999, 2020 will be an election year. If impeachment isn’t resolved until April or May, that is basically the end of the nomination process. While the conventions don’t come until summer, the nominee is usually all but certain by May.

The Game Theory

I’m sure some Democrats truly believe what Trump did was impeachment worthy. I’m also sure some did this just to embarrass him and score points. However, I’m guessing the Democratic leadership was more strategic and are focused on Job One = winning the 2020 election. So let’s look at the game theory squares for impeachment…

Outcome AnalysisSuccess LikelySuccess Unlikely
Bring ImpeachmentPence nomineeIncrease Trump turnout
Don’t Bring ImpeachmentBeat Trump 2020Increase Dem turnout

Scenario 1: Successful Impeachment

Refer to my observation above that impeachment hearings will likely drag into the spring or later. This means there was no primary campaign for the Republicans and the default choice will be to make Pence the nominee.

My guess is most Trump voters will stick with Pence and some moderates would deem him acceptable, so there is a greater chance of a Republican victory.

Outcome: Democrats lose election.

Scenario 2: Unsuccessful Impeachment

In this case, Trump beats impeachment which gives him momentum going into the general campaign. His supporters rally to the flag and turnout in even greater numbers than last time. In addition, the House flips Red as the freshmen Dems get carried away by a backlash against impeachment, similar to what happened with Clinton.

Outcome: Democrats lose election.

Scenario 3: No Impeachment but would have won

In this case, Democrats would have launched a long investigation similar to Mueller, but refrained from starting impeachment proceedings. The uncertainty of the outcome and the ability to generate negative leaks would have weakened Trump. A smoking gun emerges that would have caused Republican Senators to vote for impeachment out of self preservation. This smoking gun devastates Trump and the Democratic nominee wins easily.

Outcome: Democrats win election.

Scenario 4: No Impeachment and would have lost

This is the case where the Democrats play it conservatively (no pun intended). Realizing they are unlikely to flip Republican Senators barring something totally unexpected emerging, Democrats decide to save their case against Trump for the election campaign. They spend their energy on voter turnout and making the case that Trump deserved to be impeached, but it’s better to let the American people decide at the ballot box.

Outcome: Democrats likely win election.

A Dominant Strategy

In game theory, a choice that produces a better outcome than the alternative regardless of what the other participant does is called a dominant strategy. It sure seems that not proceeding with impeachment is a dominant strategy for the Democrats if their goal is to win in 2020.

What Are the Dems Thinking?

I think what they’re telling you is they don’t feel confident they’re going to win the election (at least as of a week ago). If they did, they would pass on impeachment and focus on winning the election.

While I don’t think “winning” impeachment helps their case (as Pence is likely more electable), they may see the decision tree differently. They may view themselves as likely to lose and thus need to take a strategy that will increase volatility. In this scenario, if they lose on impeachment, they would have lost the election anyway, but if they win, they at least got rid of Trump and will take their chances at defeating Pence in an election.

This is essentially the “underdog theory. If you’re a big underdog, your best chance of winning is to play a high risk, high reward strategy. If it doesn’t work, well, you would have lost anyway. If it does work, you pulled a big upset. I’m a bit surprised the Democrats see things this way, but their actions (assuming they’re rational, which perhaps they’re not) are telling you they do.