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Bad Incentives

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"Bad Incentives"

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Ross Douthat, while acknowledging that there’s little chance John McCain will pick Mike Huckabee, and even that picking Huckabee stands a decent chance of being a fiasco, says McCain should pick Huckabee. I think that’s all probably correct, but it points to a larger issue that McCain is facing.

The issue, basically, is that the odds are that McCain will lose. But thanks to realignment and so forth, the odds are very strongly against a true blowout. Consequently, McCain needs to choose between playing it safe and piloting himself to landing at 47 percent of the vote, or doing some outside-the-box that risks blowing up his coalition and leaving him with only 40 percent but also provides an outside chance that the gamble will pay off. The rational choice is for McCain to play to win. But his problem is that his campaign is going to be run by professional political operatives. If these guys run a respectable campaign and lose at 47, nobody’s going to blame them — McCain was facing an ultra-charismatic opponent in an adverse political climate. But if they run an outside-the-box campaign and wind up losing in a landslide, then their reputations might be badly hurt.

For McCain’s staff, it makes sense to kick field goals even though it’s the fourth quarter and they’re down by 20. They just need to keep the score close and live to fight another day. But to win, McCain probably needs to play to win and go for longshot conversions and risk getting blown out.

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