Here’s What Democrats Can Learn From the NBA All-Star Game



Bernie Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo don’t have much in common. One is a Democratic presidential candidate, and the other is a star of the National Basketball Association. But the democratic socialist from Vermont could learn a thing or two from a recent defeat suffered by the high-scoring Greek Freak.

This is a bit far-fetched, but bear with me.

While he is working hard to amass as many delegates as he possibly can, Sanders seems to be advocating a rule change that would allow him to get the Democratic nomination by essentially running out the clock. Even if he doesn’t have an outright majority of delegates going into the convention, he hopes that when the primary clock ticks down to July 13–16, when the convention is held in Milwaukee, he’ll have more delegates than any other candidate—the highest score, so to speak—and that will be enough to justify the nomination.

At the debate in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, Sanders was the only one of the six candidates on the stage who said the nomination should be awarded to the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention, even if that’s less than a majority. The other five said the nomination should require a majority of delegates, even if that takes multiple ballots, as rules currently require.

Sanders is thinking like a basketball player, or coach, for whom sitting on a lead is a common strategy. All that matters in basketball is having more points than the opponent when time expires, whether that’s a lot of points or just a few. To protect its lead and run out the clock, a team will pass the ball around until the shot clock is about to expire. The trailing team will try to defeat that strategy by committing intentional fouls, hacking a poor free-throw shooter when possible, so it can regain possession and try to score. It makes for boring, stop-and-go finishes.

Former Los Angeles Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote acolumn for Britain’s Guardian newspaper in October in which he warned that sitting on a lead can be dangerous for a presidential candidate, pointing to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 general election. “Instead of protecting your lead, press your advantage by amping up,” Abdul-Jabbar advised.

Different people will have different ideas for how Sanders might go for a majority of delegates. Some would favor rallying his base even harder. Others might suggest an olive branch to party centrists who think he’s too liberal. 

Protecting a lead by playing safe isn’t just dispiriting. It can be impossible if the rules don’t favor that strategy, as Antetokounmpo found out on Feb. 16. The NBA All-Star Game that night was the most exciting in years because of a rule change called the Elam Ending, named after its inventor,Nick Elam, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Team Giannis led at the half and after three quarters. At the start of the fourth quarter, theElam Ending kicked in, and the clock was turned off. With Team Giannis leading 133–124, the teams battled to be first to score 157 points, however long that took. (That score, 157, wasn’t Elam’s choice. It was picked by the league because it was 133 plus 24, with 24 being the jersey number of the late Lakers star Kobe Bryant.)

With no chance to manipulate the game clock, there was no incentive for either team to do anything but score as many points and get as many defensive stops as possible. So the All-Stars played their hearts out. Team LeBroncame from behind to win, 157–155.

The comparison with the Democrats? The party’s rules work a bit like the Elam Ending. Winning requires more than being a tad ahead of the competition when the primaries are over. You need an outright majority of delegates, which is 2,376 or more. (This Bloomberg delegate tracker has all you need to know.) The 2,376 threshold for delegates functions like the 157 threshold for points in this year’s All-Star Game. Get to that level, or else.

When I ran this comparison between basketball and primaries by Steven Brams, a professor of politics at New York University and an expert on game theory in politics and sports, he said, “I think there is an analogy. I agree with that.”

The Democratic Party’s rules make a certain amount of sense. They incentivize an All-Star-like struggle to win an outright majority. Under the rules, no candidate—neither Sanders nor anyone else—can be nominated for president by appealing only to a thin plurality of the party’s members.

That’s not to say the system is perfect. The Sanders camp is legitimately concerned that the nomination could be snatched away from him by the superdelegates, who are allowed to begin voting on the second ballot. They aren’t chosen by the voters and aren’t bound to any particular candidate, meaning they could swing the election by voting en masse for another candidate.

But as Giannis might tell Bernie, nursing a narrow lead is not a winning strategy when the rules aren’t in your favor.

(Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.)


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