Tragedy of the conservatives: Why Romney’s wimpy foes are acting rationally

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

Don’t understand why Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents won’t lay a mitt on him? This started way back when Tim Pawlenty wouldn’t say “ObamneyCare,” but who could have imagined Romney would skate this long? It boggles the mind, but there are actually several good reasons why Romney continues to get a pass.

One way of explaining the phenomenon might be to compare it to “The Tragedy of the Commons, which Wikipedia describes as,

a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

In this case, the conservative alternatives to Romney aren’t being selfish by overusing a shared resource — they are, instead, selfishly preserving their reputations.

By playing nice, each candidate is acting in his own rational self interest — but it just so happens to be an existential threat to the group, collectively.

Individually, this makes perfect sense. Some of the candidates, by now, know they cannot win. As such, they have little incentive to attack Romney. (Perhaps he will give them a position in his administration if they help him? — Why ruin that? Or maybe he would counter-attack them and make them look bad if they criticize him? …. Or maybe they just want to be thought of as “nice”?)

Meanwhile, the candidates who think they can win — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — probably believe their best shot at the nomination is to finish second in New Hampshire. And while going “negative” in a debate may hurt Romney, it would also tarnish their reputation, as well.

They could, perhaps, work together on this (as Gingrich suggested they might), but the best scenario is to let the other guy do the dirty work so you skate completely free. (This is sort of like prisoners dilemma, where “two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so.”)

There’s also the matter of turf warfare. Internecine struggles are often the ugliest. Conservatives who are fighting over turf will ironically resent the people closest to their niche. This is perhaps why Michele Bachmann would viciously attack Rick Perry instead of Mitt Romney. Both Bachmann and Perry would normally appeal to conservative Evangelicals, thus, Perry was a greater a threat to Bachmann than Romney.

In short, there are multiple forces at play here which explain why the anti-Romney candidates are behaving the way they are. Their actions appear irrational, but in fact, are highly rational.

Ultimately, of course, it is a perfect storm for Mitt Romney, who benefits greatly from these forces.

Updated below…

Note: This post was written after Saturday night’s ABC News debate. NBC’s Sunday morning debate saw a few more shots at Romney — though that was mostly confined to the first 10 minutes.

This post was popular, and a lot of folks emailed me. Here are some responses to the most interesting comments and questions:

… One reader noted that I neglected to mention Rep. Ron Paul. The purpose of my post was to explain rational campaign decisions, which might explain why Paul was excluded. (Paul’s unorthodox campaign is, perhaps, harder to explain or predict.)

… Another reader poked holes at this post, noting that only one anti-Romney conservative can win. While this is ultimately a zero sum game, in the short-term, they would collectively benefit from taking down Romney — before it’s too late.

… Lastly, one reader suggests a different type of game theory might better explain the phenomenon: “Rather than being a tragedy of the commons problem, a better analogy to why no one is attacking Romney might be kind of a defensive version of a Nash Equilibrium.”

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