Hard as it may be to believe, it’s only been two weeks since Paul Ryan stood in front of the Republican National Convention and delivered his tepid endorsement of Donald Trump. It was the conclusion of a tortured primary season, in which Ryan spent months weighing the costs and benefits of aligning with his party’s nominee. Trump had not made it easy on him. He’d spent much of the primary season lobbing outrageous and controversial statements into the world, as if daring Ryan to turn on him, like an absurdly aggressive poker player constantly pushing all of his chips into the pot. Now the Speaker of the House faced a tricky calculation. If he full-throatedly endorsed Trump, he would be forever linked to whatever Trump said from that point forward. If he pointedly did not endorse him, he would face the ire of angry Trump fans in his own primary battle (the vote is next week) and the prospect of a vindictive president after the election.
The challenge for Ryan is that he is short-stacked; he has perilously few chips left.
Ultimately, Ryan chose a middle way–formally endorsing Trump while routinely disavowing his most controversial behavior. He’s stuck to that strategy, even as Trump has lashed out against the father of a slain soldier, hinted he wouldn’t get in Russia’s way in Ukraine, and–allegedly–repeatedly expressed interest in using nuclear weapons. In the midst of the kerfuffle over Captain Humayun Khan, Ryan released a statement that said the sacrifice of the soldier and his parents “should be honored,” but neglected to call out Trump by name or pull back Ryan’s endorsement. Professional poker player Annie Duke likens Ryan’s move to raising weakly instead of folding or raising aggressively. “That’s an easy bet to call,” she says. And that’s precisely what Trump did over the last couple of days when, apparently irked by Ryan’s criticisms, he tweeted favorably about Ryan’s primary opponent, then pointedly refused to endorse Ryan himself.
Now Ryan has to decide how to respond. The same is true for the rest of the Republican party. But he’s running out of chips.
Trump’s erratic behavior didn’t seem to hurt him in the primaries, but now it’s taking its toll, with most polls showing Hillary Clinton opening up a sizable lead.
Why is Trump’s aggressive behavior starting to fail him? In part, Duke says, it’s because his opponents are catching onto his strategy. “In tournament poker you’ll see people that do really well for six months to a year and then disappear,” she says. “In general, those people do the exact same thing–they break convention by having this naked aggression where they’re moving all their chips without normal rhyme or reason.” Opponents initially respond one of two ways: by avoiding the player, like many of Trump’s primary rivals, who mostly ducked direct confrontation; or they try to match his aggression, like Marco Rubio did at the end of his campaign. Over time, though, players figure out a more sophisticated approach–to lie in wait until they have a great hand, then lure the aggressor into betting into them. Purposefully or not, that’s how things played out with the Khan family, who represented a bet that Trump couldn’t help but raise, despite the fact that he was clearly holding bad cards against them. “You have to figure out just the right way to punish the aggression,” Duke says.
(Duke herself is quick to say she’s not endorsing or criticizing any particular candidate, merely examining the strategy.)
Now Ryan finds himself playing another hand against Trump, who apparently won’t be satisfied until Ryan offers an unqualified endorsement—if then. How should he play it? Duke says that his middle-of-the-road strategy clearly won’t work any more. It isn’t satisfying Trump, and therefore Trump’s voters. He either needs to stop repudiating Trump or to pull his endorsement.
The challenge for Ryan is that he is short-stacked; he has perilously few chips left. He had plenty of previous opportunities to call Trump’s bet–before the convention and afterwards–but has stood by the candidate despite a litany of outré behavior. It may be less risky for him to turn on Trump now, especially after other big-name Republicans have already done so. But that also limits his upside. If he backs away from Trump, he won’t get as much credit for bravery. What’s more, instead of revoking his support over a noble cause, like Trump disparaging Gold Star parents, he’ll be seen as fighting back against Trump’s own unwillingness to support Ryan. If, on the other hand, he pledges his total support to Trump, he will look very weak, and only encourage Trump to bully him further. This is what happens when a player gets short-stacked; they don’t get to choose the perfect moment to make their move.
Still, the sooner Ryan decides, the better. Poker players tend to run low on chips if they wait too long for the perfect hand–which means that the longer they wait, the less they can gain. If they wait too long, they need to win two consecutive hands to build up enough of a chip stack to play with any confidence. “Let’s say I wait until I’m 60 percent sure I have the best hand before I bet, but I allow the chips to get so small I have to do it twice,” Duke says. “The chances that I’ll double up are only 36 percent. But if I’m willing to be a 45 percent favorite I’m better off.” By betting earlier, even with a weaker hand, a player has a ten-percent higher chance of rebuilding a substantial chip stack.
In weighing whether to distance himself from Trump, Ryan has had to determine whether it’s worth risking angering the next president and endangering his agenda. With Clinton currently a 2-3 favorite in the polls, that’s presumably less of a concern, though not a non-existent one. Even players with bad hands can get lucky–completing their straight on the last card dealt, for instance. There’s always the possibility that Trump will catch similar luck, potentially via the hack of the Clinton campaign’s computers, which could deliver a devastating 11th-hour blow to his opponent. Ryan’s bind should also get easier after August 9, when Wisconsin holds its primary and presumably eliminates his Trump-touched challenger. The only question is whether Ryan can afford to wait that long. At his current pace, Trump’s liable to raise the ante several times before then.
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