Crossposted from the EA Forum


A nonpartisan group like No Labels could privately offer US congresspeople this deal: If enough congresspeople pledge to the deal, they all agree to switch their Presidential endorsement to a compromise candidate. If not enough pledge, then pledging still gets them some other benefit, such as a campaign donation or endorsement. Such a scheme could generate a lot of utility.

Executive Summary

Many Americans are unsatisfied with the way their democracy is working, and deeply concerned with one or both of the major candidates for the 2024 presidential election. Furthermore, previous EA Forum discussion has identified electoral reform as a possible top cause area. It may be time to explore alternatives to the primary-election system used by US political parties to select presidential nominees since the late 1960s. In this post I propose a dominant assurance contract mechanism for coordinating endorsements around an alternative centrist candidate. The proposed contract works as follows: If a political big shot (congressperson, pundit, etc.) signs the contract, and certain thresholds in the contract are reached (in terms of the number of contract signatures / candidate poll numbers / etc. by a particular date), then signers agree to switch their endorsement to a compromise candidate. If those thresholds are not reached, then signers should still get some sort of bonus, perhaps in the form of a campaign donation, endorsement, etc. This bonus ensures that signing the contract looks attractive in all scenarios, which makes it more likely that the target threshold will be reached. If this scheme works as described, it could provide a foundation for long-lasting electoral reform in the United States.

Background information

Why expect a centrist candidate to do well in America's 2024 presidential election?

With all the sound and fury around American elections, you might expect most Americans to have a strong party preference. In fact, 43% of Americans call themselves independent. "Independent" is easily the nation's most popular affiliation, comfortably ahead of either Republican or Democrat — source.

Furthermore, the Electoral College amplifies the voting power of undecided voters in "swing states". Common sense suggests these voters are likely to prefer a centrist candidate.

What is negative partisanship?

Although many Americans don't identify with a party, they tend to lean one way or the other. Politicians get their votes by encouraging them to see the opposing party as demonic — source.

What is a dominant assurance contract?

There is a summary here, but I attempted to write a more accessible explanation in the following paragraphs.

First you have to understand an assurance contract. An assurance contract is a way to solve the free rider problem.

Suppose we live in a small town and we would all benefit from landscaping the town square, to the point were it would give us each $20 worth of value. Suppose it costs $1000 to landscape the square, and there are 100 of us townies. The fair approach would be for each townie to chip in $10 to raise the necessary total of $1000.

So we go door-to-door, trying to raise $10 from each resident. However, our neighbor Fred Freerider doesn't want to spend $10. He thinks if he keeps his money in his wallet, other townies will chip in the extra money to reach the $1000 total that's necessary.

An assurance contract can help us handle Fred as follows. We get all 99 townies who aren't named Fred to sign a contract that says "if all townies agree with this contract, then all townies are legally required to pitch in $10 for the landscaping bill". Once the 99 townies have signed, Fred has the choice of either signing or not signing. Assuming the landscaping provides at least $10 in value for him, the rational choice is to sign and cause the deal to go through.

But this plan could be challenging if Fred has a number of brothers and sisters who share his Freerider surname and Freeriding approach to public goods. That will make it hard to present Fred with a fait accompli in the form of a contract signed by all 99 other residents.

A dominant assurance contract, invented by the economist Alex Tabarrok, sweetens the deal for the 99 townies who aren't named Fred. The dominant assurance contract requires a wealthy and public-spirited resident, call her Alice Altruist, who is willing to pitch in more than $10. Alice adds an additional provision to our contract: If the contract fails to go through, and fewer than 100 residents sign, she will buy a candy bar for every resident who did sign, just because she thinks they're awesome people.

Now imagine you're Fred's sister, Frieda Freerider. Someone knocks on your door and presents you with the contract to sign. If you sign the contract, you know there are 2 possibilities: Either the deal goes through and the square gets landscaped, which provides $20 of value to you for only $10 in cost, or else the deal doesn't go through and you get a free candy bar from Alice! Sounds pretty good! In game theory lingo, signing the contract has become the dominant strategy for Frieda, which basically just means that signing is always the best move, regardless of what other people do.

Understanding the proposal

Current system: 'Major' candidates are chosen by party primaries

Most US states use what's called "plurality voting" for presidential elections, a very simple voting system where every voter gets to vote for just 1 candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins.

3rd party candidates are traditionally not viable in plurality voting — they tend to act as "spoilers", pulling votes away from the major two candidates.

The key insight behind this post is that deciding which candidates count as "major" has an important similarity to the problem of landscaping the town square. In both cases, we're trying to get a bunch of people to coordinate on a particular equilibrium.

In US politics, the task of deciding which candidates count as "major" has been done by the two "major" political primaries, the Republicans and the Democrats. But they've recently been doing a bad job — source.

Proposed alternative: Select a 'major' candidate by getting big shots to coordinate their endorsements using a dominant assurance contract

From the Democratic perspective

Many congresspeople, pundits, journalists, etc. think Donald Trump is a threat to US democracy. Yet most polls have Trump in the lead, and betting markets currently say he's a bit more likely to win.

If there was ever a time to try an alternative method for selecting a "major" candidate, now may be that time. If there was a magic button which replaced Biden with a stronger candidate, I'll bet a ton of people would be pushing it right now.

The goal of this proposal is to get us as close as possible to that magic button, by offering big shots like congresspeople a dominant assurance contract to sign. If enough big shots sign the contract by a specific date, everyone who signs will call for Biden to step down, and switch their endorsement to a specific new candidate in a coordinated way. If not enough people sign, then we forget about trying to replace Biden with a centrist, and everyone who did sign gets some sort of sweetener, like a campaign donation or powerful endorsement. Just like Alice's free candy bar from the town square story above.

From the Republican perspective

86% of Americans think Biden is too old for another term. And even though many Republican senators dislike Trump, they seem unlikely to endorse Biden, given the risk of backlash from their constituents.

It might be possible to persuade Republican senators to endorse a centrist candidate who their constituents find acceptable, e.g. a respected apolitical general.

Given the point about negative partisanship from above, a Republican senator could explain their new endorsement as a way to keep Biden out of office. One might expect Republican voters to be especially likely to believe that Biden is simply too old for another term.

In other words, should the target number of contract signers be reached, a Democratic congressperson might say something to their constituents like this:

Trump is clearly unfit for office. To minimize the chance that he wins a second term, I call on Biden to step aside and make room for a stronger candidate. If Biden does so, I will endorse the new candidate, as part of an agreement to keep Trump out of office.

But a Republican could say something like this:

Biden is clearly unfit for office. To minimize the risk that he wins a second term, I call on him to step aside and make room for a stronger candidate. If Biden does so, I will endorse the new candidate, as part of an agreement to keep Biden out of office.

Of course, either a Democratic or a Republican congressperson could also mention the fact that only 28% are satisfied with how US democracy is working, and try to appeal to the previously mentioned 43% of Americans who call themselves independent. This strategy would be especially sensible for a congressional candidate in a vulnerable swing district going in to a tough general election. The point is that given negative partisanship, the right explanation can appeal to constituents in deep-red or a deep-blue districts too. Negative partisanship creates a natural advantage for a centrist alternative candidate.

Bootstrapping a better voting system

Political scientists agree that the plurality voting system used in American presidential elections sucks. But politicians invested in the status quo have an incentive to resist change. This proposal could build a centrist coalition that's strong enough to replace plurality voting with something better, thereby offering a permanent upgrade to American democracy. In an ideal world, the centrist alternative candidate would make electoral reform one of the main issues of their campaign.

2024 is looking like it's going to be the 3rd super-polarizing, super-close US presidential election in a row. Maybe it's time to start thinking about structural fixes for the problem of polarization that seems to be causing so much dysfunction.

Addressing possible objections

Would Biden actually bow out of the race if a ton of congresspeople requested it?

Recall that in the 2020 Democratic primary, there was originally a broad field of primary candidates. But the party leadership felt that Sanders would be unelectable, and they asked almost everyone except Sanders and Biden to step out, in order to unify the non-socialist vote behind Biden. This actually worked, and Biden got elected president.

Maybe it's time for Biden to pay it forwards.

This plan sounds risky. What if it just hurts Biden?

From the perspective of defeating Trump, the media strategy is important here. Ideally, the project should not seek significant media coverage until a critical mass of endorsers has been reached. That should reduce downside risk.

Perhaps this plan should only be kept in reserve, if Biden's poll numbers are still below a certain threshold by a certain date.

Isn't Congress hopelessly polarized? Can we really expect them to agree on anything?

Perhaps not. See the "Secret Congress" theory:

...Members of the [congressional] minority (rightly) think that any popular, well-known bill that passes on a bipartisan basis is going to help the standing of the president... Getting bills passed helps members win re-election by giving them things to take credit for. But in an era where congressional voting is so highly correlated with presidential approval, and primary electorates say they’d rather have members that fight the other party than help their own state, it’s extremely risky for a member of Congress to let an opposite-party president be seen as successful.

If done well, this scheme won't create a big win for one party or the other. It's just a common-sense democratic reform, done for the benefit of the voters. No major concessions are being made. We're just keeping the super old, super unpopular guys out of the Oval Office, and endorsing a candidate that average Americans can support.

Would this violate campaign finance law?

I know very little about campaign finance law. It seems possible that offering a campaign donation, conditional on agreeing to make an endorsement under certain circumstances, would constitute a violation? Or maybe it would basically be fine-in-practice as long as the agreement is not made in writing? In any case, it might be necessary to abandon the donation strategy, and instead convince some high-profile people to offer their endorsement to congresspeople who agree to the deal, as an alternative "sweetener" if the deal doesn't go through.

Next steps

I have long COVID and I don't have much energy to work on this. If this idea is to succeed, other people will have to step up. Maybe that means you.

I created a Slack channel for ongoing discussion of this post. If you're interested, I encourage you to join the channel or even apply to be a mod.

Some ways to maybe help:

  • Leave comments criticizing the idea. For example, maybe there is too much of a risk that the centrist alternative candidate will not hold up to national scrutiny. Keep in mind that the baseline situation isn't looking particularly good, so the scheme may be worth a try even if there's a significant chance of failure.

  • Help figure out where this essay should've been posted.

  • Help figure out who should read this essay — perhaps someone you have a connection to — and how we can get them to read it.

New Comment