Even before yesterday’s Super Tuesday primaries, it seemed that Cruz and Rubio were locked in a game of Chicken, and it promised to be a bumpy ride. The same holds true now:

The game of chicken, also known as the hawk-dove game or snowdrift game, is an influential model of conflict for two players in game theory. The principle of the game is that while each player prefers not to yield to the other, the worst possible outcome occurs when both players do not yield.

The name “chicken” has its origins in a game in which two drivers drive towards each other on a collision course: one must swerve, or both may die in the crash, but if one driver swerves and the other does not, the one who swerved will be called a “chicken,” meaning a coward.

Although there are five players now left in the GOP primary, one is dominant (Trump) and the two second-place candidates have been trading leads (Cruz and Rubio), with the other two (Kasich and Carson) very far behind. Back when the game featured far more players, the GOP race seemed a variation of the Tragedy of the Commons:

In the meantime Trump is amassing delegates and each of the un-Trump candidates is hurting the others, weakening them. It’s something like a weirdo version of The Tragedy of the Commons, although this battle isn’t over scarce resources (unless you consider the electors resources, but that’s not really a proper analogy, either). As in the Tragedy of the Commons, the un-Trump candidates are all “acting independently and rationally according to their own self-interest” and yet behaving “contrary to the best interests of the whole”—that is, if they’re assuming that defeating Donald Trump is in the best interests of the whole.

But now that it’s down to two main non-Trump alternatives, the game is actually closest to Chicken. Last night Cruz pulled ahead of Rubio. Although the exact delegate count of each candidate is still being solidified, most news outlets this morning seem to be reporting that Cruz now has 161 delegates to Rubio’s 87, with Trump at 285. Although Cruz won his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, as well as Alaska, Rubio won in Minnesota and they were close to each other (and even to Trump) in several other states.


It’s becoming more and more clear—and it was already clear before last night—that if Cruz and Rubio stay relatively evenly matched it only muddies the waters of the primary battle rather than clarifying them. In addition, although each man found something to encourage him last night (particularly Cruz), both men staying in the race would seem to benefit Trump the most.

But even that is not certain. Trump has not consistently broken out of his pattern of winning 1/3 of the votes, except for a state here and there where he gets in the 40s, and it is unclear what would happen if the battle came down to one main Trump opponent. It is certainly possible that, in a hypothetical two-way race where Trump is pitted against either Cruz or Rubio, the result would be that Trump would remain the strong leader and would forge ahead to become the GOP nominee. If that were to occur, then the GOP voters’ preference for Trump as candidate would have been made clear.

But in the current 3-way race, we don’t even know whether Trump’s victories are at least in part an artifact of this being essentially a 3-way race. What does seem clear is that if both Rubio and Cruz stay in and refuse to swerve, both are extremely likely to lose the nomination and guarantee a Trump victory, particularly when the winner-take-all states start coming into play.

If both Cruz and Rubio can see the Chicken game emerging—and they must see it already, because it’s crystal clear—someone could decide to sacrifice himself. Or, the one doing a little worse could be promised something (Cabinet, VP spot, SCOTUS appointment) by the other.

With a unity ticket, the lion’s share of the dropout’s support would be more likely to go to the two rather than to Trump, and victory (or at least a brokered convention) might be assured. It’s one of those Solomaic things, though: who would be willing to sacrifice himself for what he sees as the greater good, or at least the good of both? After last night, the leading candidate to do so would be Rubio, with Cruz to stay in. But the likelihood of that happening with Florida looming on March 15 is probably around zero.

However, even if Cruz and Rubio were to stay in, there is a small chance that a crash for both might still be avoided. Last night’s results gave each some weak hope for the possibility of Trump not getting quite enough delegates to win outright by the time of the convention. As Charles C. W. Cooke of National Review points out, both men had a pretty good night, and although Trump had an extremely good night it fell short of demonstrating total dominance.

So here we stand, watching Cruz and Rubio drive towards each other at high speed and waiting for either a crash and a Trump victory, or a brokered convention. The latter is a recipe for a tremendously contentious battle that would be highly likely to cause further rifts in a party already at (or even beyond) the breaking point in one of the most contentious primary battles in modern history.

And standing in another observation tower is Hillary Clinton—poised for her own nearly-inevitable victory in the Democratic race, and no doubt smiling.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]