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Playing Politics

I don’t know what brought Arkansas into play for the Democrats, but it adds four electoral votes to Kerry’s stack, putting him at 228 over Bush’s 204. Pennsylvania and Ohio, as usual, are up for grabs, oscillating in a tight two-point spread around the dreaded dead heat. But Michigan and Wisconsin are now tilting blue. And somehow Kerry’s got a chance at all of the four corners, so he’s out West for a week, barnstorming mostly, but also outlining his vision for education reform with a major policy speech. Edwards is in Florida, where the Democrats are seven points ahead and would like to keep it that way. Upshot: It’s looking good, with only two weeks until the big Tuesday!

Such is the state of my current go at President Forever: 2004, a computer game that simulates a presidential campaign. The game, originally released in December, has been updated twice since. Just in time — because with the V.P. pick behind us, the real campaigns are barreling toward the final stretch in a very tight election season, the kind that one used to have to be content to just watch on TV. But in the manner of Jeopardy Home Edition, PF 2004 makes it possible to participate in the comfort of your own living room. As with politics in the flesh, PF 2004 is addictive. It is also unscientific, being a rough approximation of an exponentially complicated process involving a hundred million voters as well as many intangible and mysterious elements, such as those voters’ fickle intentions. Which also makes simulated politics just like the real kind, in which the only thing louder than the droning of the campaign machinery is the clatter of the political “professionals” as they hypothesize, lay conjecture and toss out myriad, unfounded theories about the unfolding race. To play PF 2004 is to join the fray, and in the end what may be most interesting about the game is how it quantifies just how unquantifiable politics can be.

“I’ve always been a political junkie,” says Anthony Burgoyne, the creator of President Forever 2004. “And I had this idea to make a fun time out of it.” Not being a programmer, Burgoyne, who lives in Vancouver, had to persuade a friend to code the first version, President 2000, four years ago. PF 2004, which costs $12 to download and is playable on most PCs — alas, no Mac version exists — has already surpassed the sales of the earlier one. The game’s default setting is the current election, but you can also try your hand at Carter vs. Reagan, Kennedy vs. Nixon and elder Bush vs. Clinton. Plug-ins by fans add to the historical case studies, including the chance to help Adlai Stevenson fend off the Ike everyone liked.

 

Starting six weeks before the election, you head toward November with the candidates, running mates, platform and tactics of your choosing. In a typical turn, you have a limited amount of campaign capital, denominated in “points,” with which to stump, spin the news, fund-raise, prep for debates or organize. Some of those activities drain your campaign funds — $74 million to start for Democratic and Republican candidates, $2 million for Ralph Nader — and that also has to pay for your ad production and buy time. You can test different campaign themes and fine-tune the 18 planks of the candidate’s platform. PF 2004, Burgoyne says, has gotten an enthusiastic response from political buffs and neophytes alike. Educators have been using it, including political-science professors, who, Burgoyne explains, “apply the game in their classes to play out strategies, and to understand the psychological aspects.”

I discovered that psychology in my first attempt, when I wanted to take the Kerry-Edwards ticket on the supposedly taboo leftward break, just to see what would happen. This is part of the game’s basic appeal: the chance for bold moves that real campaign managers wouldn’t dare attempt. But right off the bat, as I was adjusting my platform, adding universal health care, higher income tax for the wealthy, and amnesty for illegal aliens — I got cold feet. Because I also wanted to win the damn thing. I mean, who knows how this immigration thing is gonna play in Arizona and New Mexico, which are critical if I run into trouble in the rust belt? I felt the creep of cautious logic — that relentless instinct for safety that sadly governs Democratic politics and makes its practitioners all too often seem like bloodless hacks. If you really think about it, I said to console myself, what’s the point of articulating good policies if you can’t become president to get them enacted? Isn’t it better to have a crack at getting, like, a few, pretty-good policies in place? So I backed off on terrorism — I mean, I know that addressing the root causes of terrorism is more effective than meeting it on the battlefield, but you can’t wrap that idea in a soundbite — and I sure as hell didn’t touch the controls on any issue relating to God, guns or gays.

 

And I lost.

281-257. Carrying neither Arizona, New Mexico nor much of the rust belt. (Although I did tilt the scales in Tennessee!) The poor result was not, I think, because of my leftward policies themselves, but rather that I changed them at all — the game, like real voters, is uncomfortable with surprises. The second psychological lesson of the game appeared when, after I tinkered with my platform, I got slapped the next day with boldface headlines: Kerry Flip-flops on Health Care, Taxes, Immigration! I spent a week trying to spin that out of the papers, which spooked me into falling back on consistency and prudence. You’re John Kerry, pal. A stentorian political eminence from Boston, and not the Bobby Kennedy kind. Emphasize your experience, integrity, leadership. Stick with the program. Just like real politics, the game cowed me into staying on message, and staying boring.

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.


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