The Power of Position: “Showcase Showdown” at Party Conventions?

A friend sent me a link to a YouTube video called “The Stupidest Bid on The Price is Right.” I am fascinated by the lessons we can learn from watching game shows. The video was interesting but I think it was incorrectly named. I hope some of the 13 million-plus people who viewed this video saw a point beyond a contestant caught up in the moment making a ridiculously high bid.

Position plays a large role in decision making, often larger than we imagine. When two people make decisions in sequence, the first person has the least information and the greatest risk of error. The second person has information from the first person and doesn’t necessarily have to make a great decision; they only have to do better than the first person. I think this video should have been called “The Smartest Bid on The Price is Right” because of how the second contestant responded.

Most people know the game rules from The Price is Right but just in case you aren’t familiar with the “Showcase Showdown,” here’s the key thing you need to know: Both people bid on a group of prize items like cars and vacations and appliances. There are two contestants on they bid one after the other so the first contestant’s bid is known to the second contestant before they have to decide their bid. The person who bids closer to the retail price, without going over the retail price, wins.

In the YouTube video, the bigger winner passed on the first showcase, living room furniture, carpeting, a TV, and two motorcycles. The second contestant didn’t listen to the rules or got caught up in the moment or the noise of the audience or didn’t know what things cost. He bid $250,000, a bid so ridiculous that host Bob Barker asked him to reconsider it. (The digital display in front of the contestants had space only for five-digit bids.) Finally, he changed it to $60,000, again a giant overbid. The second bidder (whose showcase items mattered so little to her decision that they were edited out of the video) bid ONE DOLLAR. The one-dollar bid won, because the first bidder disqualified himself by clearly overbidding.

That’s the power of position. Because the first bidder made such a big error, the second bidder didn’t need to even try to come close to the actual value of the items in her showcase. All she needed to do was make sure she didn’t go bid over the price and the easiest way to do that was to bid $1, an inaccurate bid but one that assured a win. She boxed out the other player by claiming all of the range between $1 and the price of her showcase.

What can this teach presumptive presidential nominees Clinton and Trump? The chief “game” in the next part of the campaign will be the choice of a vice presidential running-mate. Donald Trump will choose his running mate in Cleveland on July 18–21. Hillary Clinton will choose hers in Philadelphia on July 25–28. As I pointed out in my prior blog on what the candidates can learn from Charles Barkley, each candidate will face pressure to name a running mate on the far end of the spectrum for “party unity,” despite the disadvantage from a “box-out” perspective.

Donald Trump has an additional positional disadvantage because the Republicans hold their convention first. He needs to make a good choice for all the traditional reasons but doesn’t know what Hillary Clinton will do. If he makes a concession to GOP unity and picks a right-wing VP, he makes it possible for the Democrats to magnify the negative consequences of such a choice by seizing more of the electorate with a centrist choice and isolating the Republicans on the right.

This got me wondering how the parties picked the order of their nominating conventions. Going second, at least this time, could be a gigantic advantage. There is no rule or law about the order of the conventions. Since 1956, the parties have observed a custom in which the incumbent party in the White House holds the second convention.

I supposed the hardest thing to believe about the convention-order custom is that the parties continue to observe it. With today’s divisive political climate, things like courtesy, custom, and tradition carry little weight. Perhaps one reason is because the incumbent party rarely uses its position to its advantage. As I mentioned in the previous blog on this subject, the nominees (especially on the Republican side) usually cave in to party pressure to pick a VP from the far end of the spectrum. The smartest box-out choice was Ronald Reagan picking George H.W. Bush in 1980, and that was a year when the Republicans had their convention first.

It will be interesting to see what happens in July. From a box-out perspective, both parties should consider centrist VP nominees. If Trump neglects this and Clinton takes advantage, perhaps this custom will fall and the parties will jockey for a positional advantage in their 2020 conventions. Because the parties typically schedule their conventions around what didn’t work last time (like the Republicans moving their convention up in 2016 because they believed holding it in September 2012 hurt them), this strategic advantage will come under attack as soon as someone actually uses it.

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education