Re: “For Obama, an Unsuccessful Campaign,” The New York Times, October 3, 2009

U.S. President Obama apparently put his own credibility on the line when he flew to Copenhagen to plead for the case of Chicago in front of the International Olympic Committee. The verdict? “President Obama not only failed to bring home the gold, he could not even muster the silver or bronze,” as Chicago was knocked out in the first round of voting. Finger-pointing started immediately: “the administration did not independently verify Chicago’s chances, relying instead on the Chicago 2016 committee assertions that the city had enough support to finish in the top two.” The implication was that President Obama would not have become the first U.S. president to lobby the I.O.C. in person had he known that it was not a close race, a point made quite obvious by the immediate Republican attack on Mr. Obama's “wrong priorities.”

So, was President Obama misled by the Chicago 2016 committee about Chicago's chances? Not necessarily so, according to game theory. The perception before the voting that Chicago had a good chance of winning was based on the two-horse race against the eventual winner Rio de Janeiro. This was probably true, but the other two contenders, Tokyo and Madrid, needed to be eliminated in the first two rounds for the I.O.C. voters who ranked either of them as their first choice to switch to Chicago in the final round. Now, if you were an I.O.C. voter supporting Rio faced with this prospect, what would you do? If you were confident that Rio would survive the first round, you would cast your vote for Tokyo or Madrid, hoping to eliminate Chicago. This is what game theorists call “strategic voting,” as opposed to “sincere voting” which is to vote for your top remaining choice at each round. Indeed, as it happened, in the first round Chicago was narrowly beaten by Tokyo, 18 to 22, while Rio garnered 26 votes to Madrid's 28 votes. If there had been just 5 more sincere votes for Rio instead of Tokyo, Chicago would have sneaked through the first round. Some of the first-round votes for Tokyo would have switched to Chicago to eliminate Madrid in the second round, making it a close race instead of a landslide win for Rio de Janeiro in the final round.

Unfortunately for Chicago, strategic voting does not work well even for a marginally weaker candidate. But the point remains that Chicago's first round elimination in the competition does not mean that it was not in fact in a close race against Rio de Janeiro. Preside Obama can relax and stop blaming his aides for bringing him disappointment and a new wave of political attacks.

A game theorist in Vancouver, British Columbia