06/01/2008 05:10 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not the Candidates' Fault

Put people in a situation with well-defined incentives, and they will behave in predictable ways. That's an article of faith for economists, and it's definitely true in the argument over Florida and Michigan's delegates to the Democratic convention.

Why should Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton take the blame for the dispute that peaked with this week's ruling? They didn't make the decisions that led to the debacle. Rather, the party bosses in each state bear the lion's share of the responsibility.

They went against the national party's rules. What did they expect would happen? By scheduling their states' primaries earlier than the rules allowed, they deliberately entered some very uncertain territory. Would the national party simply allow this to occur unchallenged? Not, as an economist would say, if the party wanted anyone to obey in the future.

The primary-scheduling process is what economists would call a repeated game. Every four years, each state makes a decision on when to hold its primary. In the meantime, the national party can try to affect those decisions by changing the rules -- and punishing states that disobey.

Even if that punishment creates disorder in the short term, it is essential to guaranteeing compliance in the long term. And, as the following example shows, sometimes even self-inflicted pain today is necessary to create a desired outcome tomorrow.

Say you really want your child to do her homework. When she doesn't, you refuse to drive her to her soccer game. Now, you actually enjoy watching your kid play soccer. But you're willing to sacrifice your own enjoyment - as well as punishing her - in order to achieve the greater goal of homework completion.

If Michigan and Florida's party bosses had thought ahead, they might have realized that a punishment was in store. Without it, the national party would have lost its rule-making power. Meanwhile, the actions of the candidates revealed their own expectations about the punishment. Hillary Clinton essentially bet that the punishment meted out by the national party would be mild at worst, so she campaigned hard in Florida and Michigan. Barack Obama wagered that the punishment would be severe, so he didn't.

Yet voters are focusing their ire on the candidates and their supporters -- not the states' party bosses. That's a shame. As we saw this year, holding an early primary is no guarantee of a pivotal role in the process, which lends some weight to the national party's position. The Florida and Michigan party bosses gambled with their members' votes in order to grab the spotlight, and they gambled badly. Surely they, not the candidates and overall harmony in the party, should pay the price.