10/24/2012 09:40 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2012

The Presidential Politics Game: Why Honesty Can't Win

Today's political campaigns exhibit a tragic feature of modern democracy: In elections for high office, honesty is a losing strategy. Sadly, what's morally required conflicts with what is necessary to win.

Consider U.S. elections for President. Borrowing the tools of corporate marketing, each candidate tries to persuade voters to entrust him with the enormous powers of the presidency. In the multimedia messages with which his campaign inundates voters -- especially in swing states -- he solicits voters' trust that, if elected, he would govern wisely and fairly, serving the country's interests more ably than his opponent would.

It is reasonable, then, to hold that a presidential nominee owes it to fellow Americans to be truthful when he asks for their votes and campaign contributions. This is a matter of basic morality, which demands respect for a person's right not to be defrauded--a right violated when one's vote or donation is obtained through deception.

However, in the 2012 presidential election, diligent fact-checkers tell us that both major-party candidates have made liberal use of misleading assertions and distortions of facts. It is tempting to be cynical and conclude simply that each is just another dishonest politician, saying whatever he thinks will get him elected. But let's set aside questions about the characters of Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney and examine the possibility that the real problem is deeper -- and more general -- than any moral failings of these two men.

Note first that the battle between Democrats and Republicans for the White House is a kind of game. To be sure, a presidential race is far more than a game: While sometimes entertaining (as "political theater"), it is not an entertainment. Indeed, the stakes involve the welfare of the country and -- because of our status as a superpower -- the world.

To observe that the contest is a game is only to say that the competitors' behavior can be explained and predicted, to a significant degree, using game theory. More specifically, since it is a competition in which one party's winning entails the other's losing, the logic of a presidential election is the logic of a two-player, zero-sum game. As in all such games, accounts of the players' moves rest on the assumption that each acts at every point with the aim of maximizing his chances of winning.

A special property of such elections, as games, is that the candidates compete by each one's trying to influence voters to prefer him to his opponent. Each appeals to what he sees as voters' self-interest and values, hoping to convince a majority that he would be more responsive to those concerns than the other candidate would. (Of course, winning a presidential election requires receiving a majority of electoral votes. I'll ignore this complication, since my point is that two-party elections are games a candidate wins by inducing voters to choose him over his competitor.)

No matter where he stands in the polls, each has a compelling reason to go after whatever votes he could gain by deceptive communications: To retain the lead if he is ahead, to take the lead if he is behind, or to pull ahead if they are tied. Moreover, each recognizes that to desist from campaign artifice would hand his opponent a competitive advantage, which forces each to persist in its use.

Once the misrepresentation starts, it keeps increasing. As in the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, neither side can afford to stop the escalation, since each rightly fears that that would advantage his opponent. And neither worries about losing voters repelled by his strategems, since both candidates are deploying them.

Now, does this game-theoretic analysis describe the reality of this year's election? In my view, it seems to go a long way toward explaining the heavy use of disingenuous campaign rhetoric -- on both sides -- that so many voters are decrying. More generally, it helps explain why reliance on spurious pronouncements has become the norm in hard-fought federal and state elections.

If, in an era when political warfare is waged by bombarding target voters with fiercely partisan messages, a candidate who eschews misrepresentation severely limits his chances of winning, that raises some hard questions.

First, does the practical necessity of making less-than-honest claims excuse them, morally? If, to win, a candidate has no choice but to utilize misstatements and inaccuracies, then how can it be wrong?

That's a difficult question, but do we really want to allow that political campaigns are exempt from the common moral norms of truthfulness? Given that whom we elect to govern us is of critical importance to our lives, how could it be irrelevant, morally, if each candidate tries to win our votes by means of half-truths and deceptive "spin"?

Second, is there anything that can be done to resolve the "honesty loses" dilemma? Regulation isn't a possibility, since political speech is protected by the First Amendment. Since, legally, campaigns need have no scruples about misrepresentation, what could incentivize them to avoid it? That's another tough question.

Currently, the most effective model for pressuring politicians is that of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which virtually coerces Republican candidates to sign a pledge promising never to support tax increases. Numerous distinctive factors, such as focusing primarily on members of one party, account for Norquist's success. But his example at least raises the question of whether honesty in political campaigns could be improved by citizens' groups and media pushing candidates to sign pledges committing them to be truthful with voters. Since, as economists say, "it's all about the incentives," and, in "election games," office-seekers' chief incentives are votes and campaign contributions, the prospects of changing candidates' behavior are not promising. Who knows if an "honesty pledge" would have much effect, but it seems to be an experiment worth pursuing.