TCS Daily

President Elect 2004 -- The Game

By Douglas Kern - September 2, 2004 12:00 AM

When I was a wee larval troglodyte growing up in the hinterland of America's Midwest, my favorite computer game was President Elect 88, by Nelson Hernandez for Strategic Simulations, Inc. Not for me were the video games that beeped and buzzed and taxed my non-existent hand-eye coordination to its pathetic limit. Who needs Nintendo when you can watch Pat Robertson shoot down George McGovern in a 1984 presidential debate? While my peers frolicked and played outside, relishing the energy and camaraderie of their youth, I sat hunched over my Commodore 64 and unlocked the secrets of hypothetical presidential campaigns. (And yet I was the nerdy one! Ah, the cruel mysteries of childhood.)

President Elect 88 casts zero to three players in the role of campaign manager to the presidential nominees of the major parties and third parties. (Yes, zero players; the computer can simulate elections without human input.) You can choose from a set of over fifty prefabricated candidates from elections past, or create your own. Players can select any election from 1960 to 1988. At the outset of the game, the status of the economy, unemployment figures, the national mood, etc. must be provided to the computer -- or players can apply the historical information from the game's database. Based on that information, the computer gives you the initial polling data from Labor Day -- and you're off, buying commercial time, scheduling campaign stops, and strategizing for televised debates.

President Elect 88 was surprisingly successful at predicting the outcome of the 1988 election. Although the game was released prior to the 1988 election, the game designers noted in the manual that Bush would probably beat any of his likely challengers by five to seven percentage points. Not a bad bit of prediction there.

The game's realism could be startling. Never will I forget the time Mario Cuomo had New York State called for him early on election night, 1988 -- only to have the state flip Republican late into the evening, as the rural counties reported in. And once, during an especially successful stint of mine as George Wallace's campaign manager in 1968, no candidate earned a majority of the electoral votes -- thus kicking the race to the House of Representatives, wherein Humphrey won on a party-line vote.

Ah, those were the days. Giant-sized Oreos, MTV playing actual music videos in the background, and a 1988 make-believe election with Kemp and Gore neck-and-neck going into week seven. Good times.

I was reminded of President Elect 88 while pouring over the latest polling data from the current election. Surely, I mused, my old game could predict the outcome of the 2004 Presidential campaign as well as these useless Internet pontificators, if not more so.

But why stop at musing? President Elect 88 lives again on the Internet. At Home of the Underdogs -- the best website on the Internet that doesn't involve words like "tech" and "central" -- President Elect 88 is available in a Windows-friendly format here. (Be sure to show your gratitude by clicking on some banners at The Underdogs.) President Elect 88 isn't the newest, the prettiest, or the smartest presidential election computer game available, but it has the offsetting advantages of being readily available, deliciously free, and -- at 155K -- a manageable download for us caveman dial-up types.

Exercising the meticulous scientific skills that made my time as an engineering major so brief and yet so memorable, I conducted an experiment with President Elect 88. I created a simulation of the 2004 presidential election -- one that would reflect the candidates and the national situation as closely as possible.

When creating candidates, the game requires you to take a brief quiz outlining the candidates' positions on the issues of the day. Many of these issues are badly dated. Sanctions against South Africa? Aid to the Contras? But I obtained realistic results by substituting "Islamicist terrorists" for "the U.S.S.R." Kerry came out as a mainstream liberal; Bush, a mainstream conservative; and Nader, a mainstream goofball.

The game also requires you to rate candidates on a scale of one through nine in the areas of public speaking, personal magnetism, and poise. I gave Bush a 4-7-5: a mildly inarticulate but charming fellow. I gave Kerry a 5-4-5: stiff, but reasonably well-spoken. Nader? 3-3-3. His appeal is strictly intellectual.

I then entered the most recent unemployment numbers, GNP growth, and inflation, along with the home states of the vice-presidential candidates. I declared Bush to be an incumbent President. The game does not permit players to alter the electoral vote distribution, so I was stuck with the 1988 numbers. Similarly, voter profiles can't be changed, so some states (e.g. New York, California) were a bit more conservative than in real life, whereas some states (e.g. the entire South) were a bit more liberal.

With the parameters so defined, I pressed forward with my experiment.

Bush wins. Big. Almost always.

Bush beats Kerry by an average of sixteen points. In fact, Kerry beat Bush in only one test run -- when Bush unwisely chose to make a diplomatic visit to a hostile country in October 1988, with disastrous results.

To make the experiment more interesting, I changed the parameters. I recreated Bush as a deformed hunchback with Tourette's syndrome. Result? Bush still wins in over fifty percent of the elections. I then gave Kerry superhuman powers of charm, eloquence, and stamina. Result? Bush still wins about half the time. Not until I jacked up unemployment while throttling back the mood of the country did Kerry win consistently.

So Kerry's best strategy is simple: cure cancer, give the Sermon on the Mount, and replace Bush with a look-alike chimpanzee. Otherwise, book the cheap caterer for the election party.

What's going on? It appears that President Elect 88 gives incumbents a huge amount of "credit" for economic growth, low inflation, and low unemployment. When these factors are coupled with reasonably good news during wartime, even Bozo the Clown will pull off an electoral landslide. Believe me, I know; I had Al Haig beating John F. Kennedy under these same parameters.

A few other observations:

- Nader was always irrelevant. Even when I juiced him up with Churchill's eloquence and Reagan's charm, Nader received more than 1% of the vote only when Kerry was already getting clobbered.

- The computer never permitted Bush to debate Kerry. When I ran Bush's campaign during an election, I had them debate three times (just as they will in real life). Bush won the first debate, Kerry the second -- and in the third, Kerry melted down completely. "Candidate Kerry has made a SERIOUS GAFFE! The panel is aghast!" He received a negative score for his performance. I didn't even know that was possible.

- Different VP candidates changed absolutely nothing.

- Bush frequently made questionable statements on the stump, but they never seemed to hurt his popularity.

- Campaign strategy made little difference. Either Bush won in a landslide, or he did something stupid to cause Kerry to win in a landslide. But nearly every race was Bush's to lose.

So if this analysis is even close to being true, why is the race so close? Simple: President Elect 88 fails to reflect the fifteen-point media bias to which Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas admitted many months ago. As the media desperately wants Kerry to win, the race is tilted in his favor to a degree that history-based analysis can't reflect.

But if you accept that President Elect 88 is correct in predicting a sixteen-point Bush win, and if you accept that media will push this race fifteen points to the left, then it stands to reason that Bush will win the real-world presidential race by a percentage point if he avoids massive mistakes. And that sounds about right.

"That's a load of hooey, Internet dude!" Well, conduct the experiment yourself. Send the results to, and I'll review your submissions in a future column.

But in any event, download the game. Munch on some Almost Home cookies, throw The Joshua Tree on the CD player, and relive my childhood. Heck, make your kids play the game, and perhaps they'll grow up to be long-winded cyberhacks too. From small geeky acorns do mighty pundits grow.

Douglas Kern is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor.


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