Campaign Manager

Can a board game really simulate the grueling twists and turns of the campaign trail?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With the Republican candidates fighting state-by-state for the GOP presidential nomination, the winner may be decided not so much by the best candidate as the best campaign manager. Most of us will never have the chance to ride the campaign bus, but we can play Campaign Manager 2008, the board game of presidential electioneering. And for just $29.99, you won’t have to suck up to Wall Street bankers or union bosses for campaign contributions.

True, the game is set in 2008, with Obama and McCain as the dueling candidates. It is unlikely that the Republican will again field a vice-presidential candidate from an alternate universe where Alaska annexed Siberia and Obama really was a Muslim. Nonetheless, the Democratic candidate is the same in 2008 and 2012, while the Republican candidate will likely face many of the same polarizing social issues and fight for the same key states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, as McCain did.

But first, let’s briefly describe Campaign Manager 2008, which won an International Gamers Award (an important consideration if you plan to appeal to the geek vote). The game was designed by Jason Matthews, a former Hill staffer and now director of public and congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Campaign Manager blends the fun of a card game with the intricate strategizing of a presidential campaign. The game consists of 20 battleground states (the other 30 are considered locked up by either camp), each represented by a big cardboard rectangle. Four of those states will be in play at any given moment. Each state has a certain number of voter groups (three for a small state such as New Hampshire, versus five for big states like Ohio) that are depicted by circles on the rectangle. Placing a blue or red wooden token in the circle signifies that it has gone Democrat or Republican. Whichever candidate is first to capture all the voter circles takes the state and its electoral votes. And, of course, like in real life, the victor is the first candidate to cross the 270-electoral-vote finish line (both candidates need about 115 votes from the battleground states to win).

But collecting voters isn’t that easy. There are two umbrella issues in each state, labeled "Economy" and "Defense." One of those two will always be the primary issue. To win a state, a candidate must win all the voters, and the voters must all identify Economy or Defense as their primary issue.

Candidates win voters in Campaign Manager by playing cards from a Democrat or GOP "event card" deck. From a deck of 45 cards, each player chooses 15 cards for a play deck, from which he will randomly draw during the game. Thus, players can tailor their cards for a targeted strategy, but it also locks them into that strategy. For example, every state has two ethnic or identity groups, such as Women, Latinos, Evangelicals, and College Graduates. Filling your play deck with demographic cards for those groups can garner large numbers of voters, but only in states where those groups are present, so a Catholic card is great for Michigan but useless for Minnesota. Or, there are Economy and Defense cards that snare voters in any state, but only a few at a time. A few are "negative messaging" cards (which should have Karl Rove’s portrait but don’t) that offer a big payoff in votes, but risk a backlash that helps the opponent.

Though these are abstract game mechanics, they do capture the feel of an election campaign. Candidates end up choosing — and being locked into — a strategy at the beginning of their campaign. You emphasize an issue, be it unemployment or the Afghan war, and then attempt to rally voters around it. Because you can never be sure if you’ll draw the card you need at the right time (better hope you have the Jewish card if Florida is one of the four states in play), and also because you never know what cards your opponent has at that moment, flexibility and resourcefulness are everything. Every candidate has a campaign plan, but it’s the true measure of a candidate in how he reacts when things go wrong.

Campaign Manager offers many vital lessons for the GOP candidates of 2012. I’ll distill a few:

First, you need to choose a strategy, which means deciding who you are going to woo and who you are going to antagonize. Judging by how the GOP hopefuls are prostrating themselves before the extreme conservative faction of their party, it seems like they have made their choice. But is this strategy a solid move or will it backfire?

Playing as the Republican candidate in a session of Campaign Manager, I opted to fill my card deck with Issue cards, like "Reform, Prosperity, Peace," that would garner small dollops of voters in many states. My plan was to appeal to a broad swath of voters across many states. My opponent chose the "Si Puede" and "Women for Obama" cards, which harvested lots of votes in Florida and Ohio, and ultimately helped win him those states and the election. Lesson learned: Just as the Pentagon prepares to fight a spectrum of missions from all-out war to peacekeeping, so too one’s political arsenal has to be broad, but still focused enough to win specific niches.

Second, there is no such thing as a purely offensive or defensive strategy. All strategies must mix attack and defense. Whatever you plan on doing to your opponent, there’s a good chance he’s already doing it to you (so do it to him first). Romney has been aiming plenty of attack ads at his rivals, but he also must endure attacks on his record and his riches. The key to victory is balancing pursuit of your strategy with blocking his. There is no room for sentimentality. Losing Oregon might be embarrassing for the Democrats, but if Indiana has more electoral votes, go for the Corn Belt. Much like chess, sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece for a larger prize.

Third, like football, politics is a game of inches, as evidenced by the constant counting and recounting of how soon Romney will lock up enough votes to secure the Republican nomination. You have to be prepared to grab a few votes here, a few votes there, and hope they eventually deliver you victory. Perhaps the better analogy is the punch and counter-punch of boxing. Playing the Democrats in one game, I picked up voters in Ohio but during my opponent’s turn, he’d swing them back toward the Republicans. Back and forth it went. If politics were nukes, Ohio would have been slag. Though I eventually won the state, I’m not sure the voters did.

Fourth, negative campaigning works. Even if there was a backlash, the overall outcome in Campaign Manager tends to favor the person who drops nasty cards like "Obama, Is He Ready to Lead?" In one game, my Democratic opponent took the high road and eschewed negative ads. Untroubled by such scruples (or blessed with a conservative realism), I played "Raising Taxes isn’t Patriotic" and "Obama, Is He Ready to Lead?" cards. The Obama camp retained the moral high ground. The Koch brothers now have Cabinet seats.

Finally, be flexible. When Clausewitz spoke of the "friction of war," he must have been thinking of politics (which is truly war by other means). In Campaign Manager, things go wrong all the time. You don’t draw the card you need, or your opponent has a card that you can’t counter. Your initial choice of cards commits you to a certain strategy, and it is inevitable that it will prove deficient in some way. So be prepared to make the best of a bad situation.

Even if Romney does win the nomination, he will be facing an experienced and prepared Obama campaign. Mitt might want to pick up a copy of Campaign Manager. He’ll need all the help he can get.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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