A Professional Poker Player Analyzes Bernie Sanders’ Primary Tactics
As Democrats and leftists debate whether Sanders should stay in the race for the Democratic nomination, a professional poker player explains why the candidate is playing his weak hand well — to the benefit of his campaign, his values and the Democratic Party.
“As a former professional poker player, I approach decision-making from a different perspective” than most pundits, writes Peter Alson, author of “Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie,” at Observer.
“For today’s players, advanced strategy is predicated on extracting maximum value from one’s holdings, no matter the strength, using position and leverage to one’s advantage.” Approaching their task as game theorists, modern players calculate their chances and devise their strategies using the cards they hold.
“So let’s play Bernie’s cards. His holdings are weaker than Hillary’s; he trails in delegates, superdelegates and the popular vote. His path to the nomination at this point is narrower than a militiaman’s view on gun laws. If he refuses to drop out of the race, and it results in a contested convention, what is his expected net gain versus what he might lose?”
Conventional wisdom would have dictated him suspending his campaign weeks, if not months, ago. If he did so, he would have been commended by Democratic elites for showing his loyalty and demonstrating an understanding that unifying against the GOP opposition was more important than furthering his personal ambitions. But Bernie is an unusual candidate. His personal ambitions seem secondary to his sense of mission. If we don’t conflate the two, then we might conclude that the best way for him to further his mission is by keeping his candidacy alive, which enables him to continue galvanizing support for his views.
Has this strategy succeeded? By ignoring calls to drop out, he’s increased his leverage in shaping the eventual Democratic platform and having a say in policy. Additionally, he’s kept alive his slim hopes for a miraculous come-from-behind victory. Not only that but he’s well positioned to step in and save the day if, between now and the end of July, some new Hillary bombshell drops or an old scandal blows up. That’s no small thing, because if that were to actually happen and Bernie had already dropped out, who knows what kind of mess would develop come convention time? If Bernie’s still in, on the other hand, the nomination would likely be handed to him, and rightly so.
What are the downsides? For one thing, continued contentiousness between he and Hillary could so enflame his supporters that come Election Day the Berners either stay home or vote against her in protest—and as a result elect Donald Trump as our next president. At least that’s what Bernie’s critics warn.
The truth is, most of Bernie’s supporters were already hostile to the establishment, which Clinton represents. Is he now further alienating them from her? Possibly. On the other hand, by refusing to clear the field for her, Bernie may actually be doing her a favor. An earlier withdrawal might have mistakenly empowered her to think that she could pivot to the center with little regard for the interests of his followers. By staying in the race, he is forcing her to be more accommodating to them and to him. Ironically, her best chance of winning in November probably hinges on her willingness to embrace him more fully.
Some progressives may not approve of Bernie’s tactics, Alson continues, but “from a poker perspective he has played a tricky hand well. By refusing to acquiesce, he has adopted a strategy that should ultimately help him derive maximum value from what is a second-best hand. And that’s a good thing not just for him and his flock, but for all Democrats.”
After a meeting at the White House this morning, Sanders announced to the public that he will stay in the race until next week’s primary in the District of Columbia.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.Wait, before you go…
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