Quick Hit Friday: Playing “Guess Who” with the 2020 Candidates

Remember that game Guess Who? When a player with a field of named faces in front of them would ask questions to figure out what character the other player held on a card?


I still remember the crisp thwap produced by the plastic-on-plastic contact when flipping down eliminated faces. “Does your person have glasses?” (Other player answers in a gleeful negative) Thwap thwap thwap. “Does your person have a hat?” Thwap thwap. And so on, until one person remained. “Your person is X!”

I thought it might be fun for today’s Quick Hit Friday to apply the principles of that game with the Democratic field’s 23 major candidates (according to the Failing New York Times). Since we can’t literally play the game, I’m instead curious what would be the most amount of questions I would need if I had to figure out any candidate.

Mathematically speaking, we would want each question to eliminate about half the field. In other words, if we started by asking “Has this candidate ever served as Senator from Vermont?” we would likely only eliminate one person. With 22 to go, that would have been a pretty inefficient opening guess.

Instead, we’d want to start with a question that can eliminate 11 or 12 of the 23 candidates. I think I have it:

Question #1. Does your candidate currently serve in Congress?

  • There are 11 “Yes”es: Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Michael Bennet along with House members Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, Eric Swalwell, and Tim Ryan.
  • And 12 “No”s: Former Vice President Joe Biden; the Mayors Pete Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, and Wayne Messam; former Congressmen Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney; ex-governor John Hickenlooper and current governors Steve Bullock and Jay Inslee; private citizens Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson; and former cabinet member Julian Castro.

At this point, we could split off in one of two directions, depending on which candidate we’re pursuing. If, say, you were holding a card big enough to fit Bill de Blasio, you would have answered the last question “No,” and I’d be left with those names. However, if instead you had the pleasure of holding a card depicting Tulsi Gabbard, you would have said “Yes” and I’d ask my next question accordingly. Hence: two paths. Worse yet, once I asked the next question, we would then have four potential paths, then eight, then sixteen.

Since there’s no reasonable way to do that in a blog post, I want to just do one path. To be fair, I’m going to always pursue the larger number of results, or, when tied, alternate between “No” and “Yes” responses.

Therefore, we are now working with that second, slightly larger group — people who aren’t in Congress now — of which there are 12. Can we find a question that halves them?

I found it!

Question #2. “Is your candidate’s home state east of the Mississippi?”

  • 6 Yes: Biden (Delaware), Buttigieg (Indiana), Messam (Florida), Delaney (Maryland), de Blasio and Yang (New York)
  • 6 No: Hickenlooper (Colorado), Bullock (Montana), Inslee (Washington), Williamson (California), O’Rourke and Castro (Texas)

It’s a dead even split, so we’ll switch to Yes this time. Can I split those six “yes”es in half?

I can!

Question #3. “Is your candidate a sitting mayor?”

  • 3 Yes: Buttigieg (South Bend), Messam (Miramar, Florida), and de Blasio (New York)
  • 3 No: Biden, Delaney, and Yang are all office-less right now.

It’s “No”‘s turn.

Question #4. Has your candidate ever held elective office?

  • 2 Yes: Biden (former Senator and VP) and Delaney (former Congressman)
  • 1 No: Andrew Yang.

Under my self-imposed “pursue the larger number” rule, that leaves two candidates, Biden and Delaney.

Question #5. Does your candidate have a chance in hell of winning this primary?


The card you’re holding is… John Delaney!

That settles it. I bet I could win this game in no more than five questions.

I encourage you to all play at home. See you next week.


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