3rd Party Toothpaste

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Much has been made of the 3rd party �spoiler effect� this election cycle. For example, many Democrats are angry that Ralph Nader is running again. They fear his being a possibility will draw votes away from Kerry and hand Bush his second term. �A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,� is a common phrase used by Kerry supporters. Of course that is based on the assumption that Nader supporters prefer Kerry to Bush, which may or may not be true. Let�s think about it.

It seems to me that the market for toothpaste is essentially a two party system. Crest and Colgate look like they have substantial market shares. Suppose I were Aquafresh man. When I check out with my Aquafresh, no one says to me, �You know that buying Aquafresh is like buying Colgate because you�re taking that profit away from Crest.� Sounds ridiculous, doesn�t it? In fact, buying Aquafresh is not like buying Colgate at all. They are not perfect substitutes. Neither are Kerry and Nader or Bush and Badnarik (the Libertarian Party candidate). I don�t care that Crest is not getting money from me because I don�t prefer Crest. I prefer Aquafresh. A vote is like a purchasing decision. It is an expression of preferences.

Those of us who vote for 3rd party candidates are not doing so because we don�t understand the consequences of our actions. On the contrary, I think I am acting very rationally. I get more value out of supporting whichever candidate I prefer than I would voting for the Democrat or Republican I dislike least. I understand that allegiances to political parties are stronger than allegiances to toothpaste companies. Nonetheless, the comparison is interesting to ponder.

As it turns out, I�m a Colgate man but I still plan on voting for a 3rd party. And what about the half of the Americans who don�t vote at all? Well, they just don�t care about their teeth.

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I was looking through Vinayak Nagaraj's website (he is studying for a masters of economics from LSE) when I stumbled across this picture which reminded me of a question I have been wondering about lately... If you look closely you will notice... Read More

Truck & Barter also has a great post on political vs. market democracy (and toothpaste!). Read More


That's an egregious simplification. There's the small issue that the fate of the free world hangs in the balance in the non-toothpaste version of events. In the toothpaste world, Crest is competing against Colgate for a share of the dental pie, yes, but Crest will still be happy if they get beat in market share and have a net profit that significantly annihilates Colgate's. Elections are very much game-theoretical in that you know (thanks to tracking polls, coverage and your state's political history) quite a bit about how your neighbors are going to vote. Toothpaste is a singular decision requiring nothing but personal preference. Even if Colgate, your favorite, was on the verge of going out of business, you would face a significant obstacle in rallying people to your cause/toothpaste. Your dominant strategy is not to pick the guy you want, but to rally people to your guy. Politics is involved. It needs people to be swayed. Everyone who brushes their teeth picks a toothpaste/powder/baking soda-hybrid, whereas non-involvement is the norm in selecting our leaders. Saying that you're going to make your play by voting for a guy who you know full well is going to get his ass handed to him is not playing the game correctly. The game is not to pick your guy, but to maximize the expected result of the game. That said, either Bush or Kerry is going to win because people like us who want a third option have been playing the wrong game all this time. So, assume Kerry drops out. Nader still loses. Frankly, most people think he's a self-aggrandizing lunatic. Sorry. Not the best choice for the guy who controls the executive branch. Bush drops out: Kerry wins. Same reason. Nader drops out: Kerry wins. We already know the rules. The game is for the country, not for an icon and especially not for ourselves. If you think I'm wrong, you need to be registering the eighteen-to-twenty-five vote. Right now.

the core problem is that in the presidential race, your "market share" is basically 100% or 0% whereas in toothpaste, you're still rather viable with a 10% share.

the game strategy changes dramatically when there's basically no consolation prize.

Since when is voting not about personal preferences? When did it become about voting for a candidate that someone else tells me is good? If you think that's what freedom is, go to Iran.

"[Freedom] is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their 'betters'".

You think we've been playing the wrong game because you don't realize or don't want to think that we're playing a multi-staged game in which the probabilities of one party winning are variable over time based on previous results. If Badnarik were to win 25% of the popular vote this election, people would consider voting for him more seriously next election. His strong performance in election N gives him a better chance in election N+1. If you think I'm wrong, read a history book.

In the toothpaste argument, many would choose Colgate over introduced alternatives even if we had a economy in which the only formula was Colgate. Also, many would choose Badnarik in the election even if they knew that Bush would win by a single vote in their home battleground state. This would infuriate many supporters of anyone but President Bush, rightly, I think, because they believe that a revote would change the outcome, which I imagine it would. So did people vote 'correctly' the first time? I don't dispute that exposure of the software programmer from Texas would help him eventually win an election for, God, anything someday, and if you don't care who is in the White House for the next four years then I'm not sure we disagree on much. I'm not a fan of Kerry or the President, but I'm going to vote for Kerry because that's who I want to win. And I'm going to try to help him win, just as you should for your guy.

The point of conflict is that the Kerry people and the Bush people are allowed to gripe about not being able to convince people that we only get one shot at picking a president. Votes matter very much and I would hope that anyone reading your post would not feel guilty for delivering their absolute last choice back as Commander-in-Chief because they wanted to express their opinion to people who don't care about the failings of the two-party system. Sure, if Nader stayed home in 2000, Al Gore would be President. If Perot had stayed out in 1992, etc. The real day is not like the fifty ballots or whatever it took to nominate Mike Badnarik. There's one, and there's a strategy that involves allocating your vote to a particular bucket. It's not *just* personal preference. If your payoff for voting for a fourth-place guy and sporting the bumper sticker until the next election in which some other poor sucker can do the same thing is high enough to provide solace if Bush wins, then more power to you. Don't feel betrayed when other people make the play for their second choice.


I don't mean to be mean, but your individual vote is irrelevant and unimportant to the outcome of the election.

Sure, if Nader stayed home in 2000, Al Gore would be president, etc. But if you or I stayed home, Bush would still be president.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's irrational to vote for one's own pleasure, or for the super-clean feeling of being a part of the Aquafresh team, etc.

Your vote might be an expression of preferences, but it is an expression that the Crest and Colgate and even the Aquafresh folks will never notice. It is only for you to notice...

You know, it's not like I'm arguing for the elimination of the IRS or anything. Assume that I live in Florida in the year 2000 and that I have, through door-to-doors, lit drops, editorials, etc., assembled a coalition of, oh-I-don't-know, 538 people who wouldn't normally have cared. Or better yet, would have voted for Nader. Guess what -- Bush loses. Let's take a simpler model. A jury trial. Same association and same payoff. Either your guy wins or loses. (Assume no sentencing phase.) Abstentions are live. (Representative of non-participants. Also make the assumption that a vote can be blocked into groups representative of its members.) Abstaining (similar to voting for a known loser -- we know this because polling tells us so -- this is a very different time than in the bloody history books) is non-participation. Although I would consider a husband-wife group who travel to their polling place of choice and cancel each others' vote non-participation as well. Anyway, back to the analogy. Since a single vote does mean something (I don't know if you were talking about Virginians not affecting the 2000 election, but blocks of Virginians very much do. i.e, Republicans) it means something to vote one way in a close race if you care about your duty. If everyone else is wanting to fry the guy, abstaining to allow the general opinion is an okay option. If the vote is 6-5 (and a simple majority is okay) and one guy has abstained for a bizarre reason, it's worthwhile to try to affect that decision. if you're on the losing side. All I've been saying is that votes (and/or voting blocks) matter and that voting for a distant fourth option should be considered more than just a personal choice, since it affects the choices of other participants in the election.

I agree with Joe. All the people want to choose Colgate now. It has been found that Colgate has better formula.


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This page contains a single entry by published on August 11, 2004 3:32 PM.

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