Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Reagan, Yeltsin, and the Strategy of Political Campaigning
Jul 23 2007

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, professor at NYU, talks about the political economy of political campaigns and his forthcoming book, The Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons from Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin. He talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the different strategies politicians pursue in attracting support from voters and party delegates, the persistence of negative campaigning, the cost to politicians of sticking to their principles and how the political choices of Reagan and Yeltsin intersected to end the Cold War and dissolve the Soviet Union.

George Shultz on Economics, Human Rights and the Fall of the Soviet Union
George Shultz, the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of economics in his career, the tension between morality...
Chris Blattman on Why We Fight
It's tempting to explain Russia's invasion of Ukraine with Putin's megalomania. Economist Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago talks about his book Why We Fight with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Blattman explains why only a fraction of rivalries ever erupt into violence,...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jul 23 2007 at 12:07pm

I apologize for making an off topic post and a request at that.

My request is that you do an econtalk on the economics of energy. It seems to me as a student of resource economics that most people get energy economics even more wrong than they get other areas of economics. There exists a group of people who believe that “Peak Oil” will lead almost complete collapse of the Industrial economies.

I ask myself, why does that USA government have department of energy seeing how little good it has done. Has any good thing ever come out of the department of energy?

Russ Roberts
Jul 23 2007 at 12:21pm


Excellent idea and I’m working on it. Meanwhile, you might enjoy these posts I did at Cafe Hayek on “peak oil:”

Luke 0
Jul 23 2007 at 6:05pm


Any chance of having congressman Ron Paul on the show?

Jul 23 2007 at 11:59pm

I think that a winning heresthetic campaign could be built on a candidate strongly stating that we won the war in Iraq (in 2 weeks) and that we should now leave Iraq. Republicans seem to be reluctant to admit victory because that would cause the people to demand a withdrawal and they fear what would happen to their allies in Iraq after a withdrawal and that Iraq could become a base for terrorists. I think that a heresthetic campaign could overcome those objections by insisting that deterrence works and the punishment of Iraq in the war would serve as a great deterrent to the Iraqi people allowing Iraq to become a base for terrorism. The democrats seem not to want to admit victory because it might strengthen Bush, but Hillary seems to come closest of all candidates to admitting victory.

BTW I will vote for Ron Paul though I disagree with him on much of his reasoning he comes closest to supporting policies that I favor.

Jul 24 2007 at 10:01am

Russ…I’ll include my comment from cafehayek on here, as this is probably the more appropriate place to put it…

66–…it’s interesting to me that I loved the other two podcasts with “BDM”, but was very uninterested in this one. Maybe it was just so historical, and apart from his applications near the end (of what to look for in a candidate on the campaign trail), I didn’t really see much application. I’m sure a more savvy listener could take the lessons from the past and apply them to the now, but I’m not to that point. If there could have been more ties to the current ’08 campaign, I think that I’d have found this more interesting.

Regardless…I look forward to every monday morning when I can download the latest installment. –99

Also, having watched “A Beautiful Mind” again last night, and actually realizing the Economics this time (I had no memory whatsoever of him mentioning Adam Smith last time, or how his Nobel Prize was related to applications of his work in economics…just goes to show you how you can re-read books/re-watch movies throughout life and always get something out of them), I’d be interested in hearing how Dr. John Nash’s ‘equilibrium’ theory applies to economics. Some short research on ever-popular-topic Wikipedia shows that his primary contribution was ‘game theory’, which I’ve heard mentioned several times on the podcast, but never explained.

Is this an opportunity to explain this more? It’s something that comes up a lot (along with ‘public choice theory’), and seems very important, but there are more sideways references to it, or assumed shared understanding, than explanations of it.

Thank you, again, for providing this podcast.

Jul 24 2007 at 11:44am


Some answers to your questions about how game theory and economic equilibria are related are addressed in the “About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast” links for the podcast. I recommend the one on Game Theory from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

You also might find the Biography of John von Neumann helpful:

In their book, von Neumann and Morgenstern asserted that any economic situation could also be defined as the outcome of a game between two or more players. But the semicompetitive/semicooperative nature of most economic situations, in which the value of the outputs is greater than the value of the inputs, increased the complexity, and consequently, the two were unable to offer solutions. “Nash equilibrium” solutions have since been found, addressing the skepticism that some economists had about the applicability of game theory to economics.

The encyclopedia article Public Choice Theory is also very readable and might give you a quick start on some of the terms.

Jul 26 2007 at 12:22pm

Russ, I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast as I have Bruce’s previous interviews with you. Since we’re plugging for future interviews, I wonder if you’d ever consider doing a piece on agricultural subsidies in the OECD and their causal role in poverty and desertification in places like Africa. It would be refreshing to hear ideas on African poverty from a market perspective.

In light of concerns about global warming, and the repeated failure of foreign aid and debt relief to address problems in Africa, I think it would be quite timely.

Jeremy McKibben
Jul 26 2007 at 2:06pm

I’m just finishing up The Logic of Political Survival so this podcast came at a perfect time. Bruce didn’t have much time to address the details of large-coalition leadership selection in that book, so I was really happy to hear him discuss some of the nitty-gritty of democratic politics.

Russ, while we’re on the topic of making suggestions, have you considered an interview with Dani Rodrik? It would be particularly interesting if you and Dani discussed globalization or industrial policy, because I’d love to hear some of his more unorthodox views challenged and discussed (in the tradition of your excellent podcast with Richard Thaler). This would also allow you to touch on some of the topics Michael brought up in the previous comment.

And never be afraid to do another show with Mike Munger, the podcast on recycling was probably one of the best I’ve heard. I could almost see the two of you hosting a pretty darn good radio show.

Jul 27 2007 at 6:35am

Amen, Jeremy. At least, to the Munger comment…I’ve no idea who Dani Rodrik is, but I’m sure another ‘paternalism-type’ discussion would be great, and if he’s in the opposition, all the better chance to learn.

This podcast is the most fun class that I’ve never had.

Jul 27 2007 at 7:27am

I’ve recently read somewhere that the end of the Cold War had not much to do with Reagan or the Pope, but a lot to do with the Saudis abruptly lowering the price of oil in the late eighties. Is this just a conspiracy theory?

Also I wonder if the ban on negative ads for commercial products encourages more heresthetical competition, and so whether it would be beneficial to ban negative political ads as well. Although I’m not generally in favor of bans.

Jeremy McKibben
Jul 27 2007 at 11:54am

Shawn, I don’t think Dani is a paternalist, I just meant it would be interesting to hear Russ interview some economists with unusual views (if only to tell them why they’re wrong). For example, Dani has argued that a well-executed industrial policy could accelerate growth in developing countries (see )

I don’t want econtalk to turn into Hardball or anything, but it’s always enlightening to hear why economists disagree. We all learned a lot from the podcast with Thaler.

You can find Dani’s blog here:

Jul 28 2007 at 7:20am

…yeah, didn’t mean that he was a paternalist, more of how the disagreement would be very elucidating due to the different viewpoints, much as the thaler/paternalism podcast was.

Comments are closed.


About this week's guest:

About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast:Books:


      • "William Harrison Riker" by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Kenneth Shepsle. National Academy of Sciences. Biographical memoir of William Riker (1920-1993).
      • "Democracy is a Means, Not an End" by Mike Munger. Econlib, January 10, 2005.
      • "Competition" by Jack High. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. "The pursuit of profits, in the two hundred years since the industrial revolution, has unleashed what economist Joseph Schumpeter called a 'gale of creative destruction.'...."
      • "Game Theory" by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
      • "Reaganomics" by William A. Niskanen. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Web Pages:

Podcasts and Blogs:



Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Book themes: Why some politicians can return from the political wilderness while others cannot; the evolution of how parties select their candidates; the strategy of campaigning; the particular strengths and weaknesses of Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin as campaigners and political strategists. Political campaigning: Two basic kinds of campaigners: those who engage in rhetoric, try to persuade voters--the usual kind--and herestheticians (term invented by William Riker), someone who casts a different kind of campaign claiming "I'm not better at solving the problems everyone's talking about. They're talking about the wrong problems. I'm going to identify what the correct problems and I'm the only candidate doing so." Latter type if successful can construct a coalition around a set of arguments such that their main opponent cannot embrace his position without acknowledging past mistake (e.g., Reagan v. Carter), and cannot oppose the position without isolating himself by losing key members of his constituency (e.g., Scoop Jackson). Running a heresthetic campaign: voters are buying someone who is going to deal with whatever issues come up. Can change the world on the basis of policies that nobody looked to you for. Rhetorical vs. heresthetical campaign analogous to economics of competition: trying to out-do your competitor by, say, improving a product, vs. a radical change, whole new product, Schumpeter's "creative destruction." Clayton Christiansen, innovation challenges. Slide rule example: computations before the computer. In 1967 Keuffel & Esser commissioned a study of the future, 100 years from now, but didn't come up with the pocket calculator which was only 5 years away, which destroyed them as a business. Similar in politics.
8:10Reagan example: Carter and Reagan, or Reagan's competitors for nomination in the Republican party: focus on how do you manage the cold war relationship? Reagan changed discussion by saying you don't manage it, you win it. 1963 memo, U.S. could win the cold war peacefully by spending so much money that the U.S.S.R. would be either bankrupted or be forced to concede. Reagan in His Own Hand. Did Reagan campaign on the premise of winning the cold war? Or is that just an ex-post justification? Central themes in the campaign were that we had to cut taxes in order to stimulate growth in the economy; and that by stimulating growth government revenue would go up, not down; and that the increase in revenue could be used to expand the military to force the Soviets into a choice. Probably he didn't think the cold war would end within his presidency (it ended immediately afterwards, though). Pointed out John Kennedy and Warren Harding had cut taxes to increase growth and increase revenue. Viewed as war monger. Star Wars: in 1984 Edward Teller vetted it publicly, but it had been a centerpiece of Reagan's thinking since 1976. Advisers suggested he didn't raise it in 1980 campaign. Costly signal to the Soviets.
13:29Voters are aware that campaign promises are not not enforceable and are not particularly credible. Campaigns as manipulative exercises. Puzzle: Why do voters change their views in response to what candidates say in the campaign when the voters know that the candidate has the incentive to say whatever it is that will persuade voters to vote for them? Just entertainment, like curling? An awful lot of money is spent on this so someone must believe it works. Negative campaigning is bemoaned but it exists because it works. Historical context: Cicero, Roman Consul, not from a high-ranking family. Brother, Quintus Tullius helped him out by writing a brochure, strategy of campaigning: look, you want people to like what you think and to like you, so be sure to say what they want to hear even if untrue. Your opponents will do the same thing, so be sure to talk about your opponents' sexual depravity, etc. Maybe not true but it's enough to cast doubt. Core of Riker's work on campaigning, talked about Constitutional Convention, many other campaigns. "I'm the devil you don't know, but the devil you do know is doing really terrible things so you'd better get rid of him!" Uncertainty by its nature demands a negative campaign. Minimax regret, theory of decision making, Danny Kahneman Nobel Prize, Amos Tversky: people more concerned about avoiding losses than about gains. Negative campaign capitalizes on that. Rhetorical campaign core, creates fear that you will lose something. Heresthetic campaign also has negative campaign, but of a more positive sort. "This other guy may know how to do things, but he's not talking about the right stuff."
21:00Always a romance about principled politicians. Find them on campaign trail but rarely in office. Why? "We say we want principled politicians. What that really means is that we want politicians who agree with us." Opponents characterized as stubborn, but stubbornness is characteristic of principledness. Bush, Cheney, Iraq war example. Candidates have an incentive not to be clear. "They tell the truth but not the whole truth." Whole truth will not get you elected. Norman Thomas, head of socialist party and founder behind the ACLU, and also ran for president. Great Society under Lyndon Johnson, was actually the idea of Norman Thomas, but Thomas didn't understand how to win. After Reagan died he was described as principled by both those who loved him and hated him during his life. In campaign, he told the truth but not the whole truth. In 1968 campaign, Reagan ran on a Southern strategy, appealing through codewords to many with racist sentiments even though he was not a racist. In 1980 he won the pro-choice vote, yet afterwards spoke of pro-life but didn't do much. Not a convenient issue. Primarily a libertarian. 1977: two types of conservatives: fiscal, sympathetic; and blue collar workers who were socially conservative but who primarily voted Democrat. Carved a niche for them in the Republican party. Fred Thompson. Coalition may have run its course. To win the nomination you now have to run toward the extremes, but to win the presidency you have to run toward the center.
30:09Primary process. Smoke-filled room traditionally played an important role, party insiders made decisions about who would represent the party. Why did that change and what were the implications? (Boris Yeltsin.) In today's world the primaries are decisive and the convention is entertainment. Previous to the mid-'70s, the opposite. 1968 Republican campaign: Nixon, Rockefeller (liberal wing), George Romney, Reagan. Time Magazine cover. Primaries were not as important as today. "Barons"--Strom Thurmond, Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, six people--controlled about 40% of the delegates to the convention. Rockefeller, G. Romney, and Reagan did not understood that a grassroots campaign was almost certainly doomed to fail to win the majority. Nixon understood that he needed those six people and then easy to pick up the rest. But then why did the others run grassroots campaigns? Rockefeller knew his policy campaign wouldn't be supported by the six guys. Romney, similar. Reagan came in late, and by the time he committed the delegates were already committed to Nixon. 1972: things had changed and could run a grassroots campaign. Reagan came very close to being successful against Ford. Very hard to wrest the nomination from an incumbent who is president. Franklin Pierce. Reagan had not yet articulated his heresthetic strategy. Reagan was mindful of Rockefeller position in 1968, where Rockefeller had stayed home in 1964 instead of supporting Goldwater. Didn't want to be seen as disloyal.
39:33People bemoan fact that there is very little variety within parties today. Previously had Scoop Jackson, hawkish Democrat in 1960s and 1970s; Rockefeller a liberal Republican who believed he could win the votes of the Bobby Kennedy supporters after Kennedy's assassination. Both parties today are more monolithic. Giuliani is making a run as a liberal Republican, but examples seem few. Does that have to do with the shift in the primary process? Primary system brings out activists. Voter turnout is much lower in primary elections than in national elections. Tend not to be toward the center. During campaign, tweaks toward the center. Examples: both Reagan and Yeltsin redefined what the center is. Condi Rice question: How is it that people like Yeltsin or Reagan who seem to be far outside of the political mainstream of their society can rise to the highest office? Gorbachev, Soviet history made it so Boris Yeltsin was lucky to be alive. Entrepreneurial redefinition, multiple dimensions. In multiple dimensions, being far from the status quo makes it easier to create a coalition. More challenging for Boris Yeltsin, who also had to create an electorate to fill that space, change the system. Launched campaign against special privileges of Communist Party Members--popular with population but shockingly unpopular with the decision-makers who chose who the leaders were! Bizarre strategy that paid off. Gorbachev's primary rival, Ligachev, was to reduce the availability of vodka--unpopular both with electorate and leadership. Had not sorted out how elections operated. Gorbachev denied that there were any privileges. Yeltsin got dropped as a candidate member of the Politburo and was fired. Yet he resurrected himself with the argument: Russia is producing the majority of the wealth of the Soviet Union, subsidizing the colonies, yet it's the only republic that doesn't have its own communist party. In the past it didn't need it; by drawing this distinction he was making a move toward sovereignty. Gorbachev obviously couldn't embrace this--it would make him the titular head of an empty shell. But the leadership was mostly Russian, so it would give them more political power, so they began to see it as attractive. Yeltsin started to push for elections and gets elected Mayor of Moscow with 90% of the vote--he representing the proletariat! Coup against Gorbachev. Russian Communist Party--did it have privileges in the interim? Ending the cold war was not part of Yeltsin's vision. Good at constructing a campaign, though not at governing.
54:29Would political forces have pushed the Soviet Union in that direction anyway? Not so quickly. Reagan military spending was bring Soviet economy to a critical juncture, but they might have muddled through that had Yeltsin not simultaneously created the internal situation. Why did Gorbachev choose the path of reform he did. End of cold war--another publication. Linkage as a way of putting together a coalition. Gorbachev attempted two reforms to solidify his political power: modest economic reform, and needed help to get economy moving and thought the West would help, so greater detente for money for help. Miscalculation was to believe that the economic reforms would solidify his position. Instead strengthened Yeltsin's hand. At that stage Gorbachev was worried about Shevardnadze.
58:42Campaign sometimes raises issues that turn out to be not important in governance. But Reagan ran on issues he did implement. Promise to link tax cuts and expanded federal (military) spending, to challenge Soviet Union. Reagan strategy necessary but not sufficient--needed Yeltsin's simultaneous strategy. Advice to us as viewers of campaigns: Look for the quality of the mind when a candidate is confronted with an unanticipated question. How quickly do they slide back to the Quintus Tullius approach? Salient upcoming issues in this campaign? All rhetorical campaigners in this campaign, none heresthetical. Might that change as we get closer? No, it will become vaguer and vaguer. Law school essays all the same, how you survive personal tragedy. Take a chance.
1:03:29William Riker: coined term heresthetic. Once in a century man, reinvented how politics is studied, serious mathematical study of politics through game theory. Most original since Machiavelli. Transformed how many of us think about politics. Non-technical book, Art of Political Manipulation, historical narratives on how politicians made themselves successful, Lincoln. Liberalism Against Populism, must read to understand politics, little bit of technical material, how to throw the rascals out. Had there been a Nobel Prize in political science, he should have won the first one.