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The Perverse Game Theory of Argentina’s Messed-Up Election

The Perverse Game Theory of Argentina’s Messed-Up Election

If you think the U.S. Electoral College is a weird way to elect a president, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. On Sunday, Argentines will choose a successor to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — or maybe they won’t. A runoff could happen next month, but only under conditions arbitrary enough to launch countless political strategems.

The uncertainty stems from the presence of three viable candidates. Daniel Scioli served as vice-president to Fernández’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, and is now governor of the province of Buenos Aires. He first came to prominence as a powerboat racer. Mauricio Macri is the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires, a businessman who ran Argentina’s most popular soccer club, Boca Juniors. And Sergio Massa was Fernández’s cabinet chief until he defected from her coterie and returned to his post as mayor of Tigre, a major metropolitan area on the outskirts of the capital.

Macri is the center-right candidate who leads his own party and also represents groups traditionally opposed to the Peronists, such as the Radicals. He’s something of a technocrat, with about as much charisma as that term implies — an Argentine Michael Bloomberg on his good days. Scioli and Massa are both Peronists at least nominally, which associates them with the populist — and potentially catastrophic — economic policies of Fernández and Kirchner. Still, all three candidates would be expected to moderate these policies somewhat, seeking an end to fiscal profligacy, rampant inflation, harsh capital controls, and Argentina’s pariah status in global financial markets. Yet Scioli is still tied to Fernández; her influence and the interests of her cronies would undoubtedly be felt in his administration.

The politics are intricate enough, but things really start to get interesting when it comes to choosing a victor. A candidate can win outright by claiming 45 percent or more of the popular vote, or by winning 40 percent and being at least 10 percentage points ahead of the nearest rival. At the moment, Scioli has close to 40 percent in the polls, while Macri trails with 29 percent and Massa brings in 21 percent, leaving another 10 percent to minor candidates.

In other words, Macri only needs to pick up a percentage point or two to force a runoff, but Scioli needs five points to be sure of avoiding one. Massa isn’t going to be president, but his backers could be pivotal. If there is a runoff, Macri will need about half of Massa’s votes to have a chance of upsetting Scioli.

So what’s an Argentine to do? Kenneth Arrow, the Nobel laureate economist, proved long ago that no mechanism for deciding between three or more candidates fulfills a list of deceptively simple and desirable criteria (see a mathematical description here, or the plain English here). In the simplest terms, he showed that it was impossible to make all voters feel like the process selected the right winner.

Argentina, as everywhere else, is already in Arrow’s world of the second best. Things are just a bit more complicated than in other places.

For Massa voters, the best strategy depends in part on how much they know about each other. If they’re fairly sure that most of their number would prefer a Peronist — any Peronist — to Macri, then they can feel comfortable picking Massa in the first round; Scioli would likely win in the second. But any Massa voters who wants anyone but Fernández’s anointed successor to be president will have to consider switching to Macri in the first round, just to ensure that a runoff happens.

That’s if the polls stay where they are now. If the gap between Macri and Scioli starts to close — a frequent occurrence as elections draw near that doesn’t always forecast the outcome — then a runoff will seem more certain. Massa’s voters, regardless of whom they’d pick in the second round, will feel fine sticking with their man in the first.

Yet this is a big risk for Macri. If the tightening in the polls is illusory, and the result is 40 percent or more for Scioli and 29 percent or less for Macri, then there will be no runoff. Perhaps perceiving this, Macri has been reaching out to Massa voters in an attempt to bring them over to his side. But this is not his best strategy for forcing a runoff; instead, it is to try and take votes away from Scioli, pushing him below 40 percent.

In other words, Macri’s interest is to support every measure that switches voters from Scioli to another candidate — any other candidate. Massa is far enough behind that he poses little danger to Macri. So even as Massa attacks Macri, calling him corrupt and linking him to Fernández’s officials, Macri would do well to support any aspect of Massa’s campaign that hurts Scioli.

This may sound like a perverse or implausible strategy, even in as rough-and-ready a political climate as Argentina’s. Yet something similar happened recently here in the United States. Sensing that Todd Akin would make an easier opponent in the 2012 Senate race in Missouri, Claire McCaskill — the Democratic incumbent — spent $1.7 million to help him come from behind and win the Republican primary. McCaskill attacked Akin in a way that drew Republican voters to him, calling him too conservative.

By the same token, Macri may wish to attack Massa in ways that send Scioli voters his way. Diehard Peronists are following Scioli now, but what if Macri starts saying Massa is the most Peronist of all? The only danger is that Massa’s backers will waver and begin to perceive Scioli as the true moderate.

As an alternative tactic, Macri might attack Scioli in ways that draw voters to Massa, as well as to himself. A campaign message in this vein might go like this: “Scioli is so bad that even Massa isn’t as bad, but I’ll attack both of them.” Macri supporters would agree with the message, so there’d be no danger of losing them. But for wavering voters, there would be two villains of the piece: Scioli, as the worst option, and Macri, as the negative campaigner. Massa would come out as the moderate middle option, a sort of innocent bystander. A Scioli voter who would never consider Macri might be drawn to Massa instead.

For Scioli, by contrast, churn between Macri and Massa is essential. A forecast with both Macri and Massa at 25 percent in the first round would be ideal. And it may well be easier for him to push Macri’s supporters toward Massa than to attract new voters for himself. Taking a page from McCaskill’s book, he could attack Massa for being all the things that people like about Macri — a sort of Macri Lite, which is what many Macri voters may actually want. Or he could simply stick to attacking Macri, leaving Massa above the fray.

Either way, the candidates only have a couple of days to turn the tide. Yet with the election on a knife edge, and with several percentage points worth of voters claiming to be undecided, a bit of last-minute scheming could still make the difference. Time for some pochoclo.

JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images