By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
With the exception of an ill-fated attempt to go big with a Kucinich-Sharpton ticket, this was my only real defeat. Once I got the hang of it, the rest were mostly comfortable victories with a variety of configurations: Kerry-Clark; Clark-Edwards; Kerry–Hillary Clinton; Clinton-Edwards. I even took Kerry and Kucinich all the way, and eked out a win with the supposedly radioactive Dean in a nail biter of a contest: Polls showed 268-265 on the eve of the election and remained inconclusive until Hawaii’s returns came in at midnight to put me at 270 electoral votes and sealed what would have been the closest electoral win in history.
How realistic is all this? There is sufficient detail in PF 2004 to get a sense of the mechanics and choices of a real campaign: the constraints of limited resources; when to influence the media; where to build ground operations. Although the program throws out occasional bizarro developments — Cheney campaigning in lefty Hawaii (the only state Kucinich did well in); a benefit concert for the Kooch in Ohio that somehow raised the profile of the Social Security issue — the game mostly responds reasonably to the player’s moves. The game has enough fidelity that Burgoyne has been contacted by several people involved in campaigns, including Kerry’s, who say they use it as a tool.
What kind of tool is hard to say, because PF 2004 is still a tremendous simplification of reality. When you put your ticket together, or run ads, or give a speech on military intervention, the computer runs those actions through a set of formulas to assess what the effect among voters will be. Since politics is an epiphenomenon of human behavior, it is messy and no one knows the coefficient for consistency, or a magnifier for economic conditions, or what the chances are that negative advertising will backfire. Burgoyne essentially had to pull the numbers for those formulas out of thin air.
Then again, that’s just what the pollsters, consultants and field directors in the real campaigns do. In a recent interview in the Denver Post, Tad Devine, a Kerry strategist, discussed how the campaign has simulated the election thousands of times, using sophisticated computer models that use econometrics, demographics, voting patterns and any other factors they can think of. But Lynn Vavrek, a political-science professor at UCLA, is doubtful, saying that in politics, using the term “‘sophisticated computational techniques’ would be like making a hot dog and calling it a gourmet food celebration.” Those models, like Burgoyne’s, are imperfect. They rely on limited sampling, imperfect analytics, and results that are often statistically indeterminate from zero. In short, the professionals don’t know any more than Anthony Burgoyne about which numbers to stick in the equations.
“So they’re flying blind?” I ask Vavrek.
“Yes,” she says without hesitation. “They’re flying blind.”
As are, Vavrek points out, all the commentators who parade across the infosphere opining about the effects of adding Edwards to the ticket, or whatever the day’s political news happens to be. They can’t predict anything with confidence, she says, certainly not six months out. Even on November 6, 2000, with the benefit of last-minute polls, Mary Matalin was on CNN talking about a Bush landslide. The closest pundit prediction that day was from an astrologer, and that was only because she went with Bush but put no numbers on it. So when you’re playing PF 2004, you can take comfort in knowing that you’ve got about as much basis for pontification as the Capital Gang. In light of that, I generated enough data in the past week to go out on a limb here: Kerry to win. 52 percent popular, with 271 electoral votes.