What a year is 2020.
Today I’d like to share political forecasting story. It links elections and the pandemic. It is also a good example of two futures tools, which are also pedagogical practices: gaming and scenarios.
Recently a group of politicians, officials, and politically minded people organized by the Transition Integrity Project* played an interesting simulation game. The idea was to role play politicians and officials during the November 2020 elections.
Mechanically, it was based on small groups:
Each simulation exercise involved seven teams, each composed of 2–3 people. The teams were constructed to allow players considerable flexibility to adopt different identities at different points in the game.
Each represented key units in the election, or “actors” in political science terminology:
Using a “matrix game” format, the teams were: (1) The Trump Campaign [“Team Trump”]; (2) The Biden Campaign [“Team Biden”]; (3) Republican Elected Officials; (4) Democratic Elected Officials; (5) Career Federal Government employees (civilian and military) and political appointees; (6) Media (right wing, left wing and mainstream); and (7) the Public (this team consisted of polling experts). Teams were made up of participants with “real life” experience in the types of roles they were asked to play.
(NB: I will have more to say about matrix games soon.)
In this simulation players played four games, actually, one after the other, each based on a different scenario, according to the New York Times. The scenarios were determined by possible election night — or election week, or election month, or election season — outcomes.
- a scenario in which the outcome of the election remained unclear from election night and throughout gameplay.
- Biden won outright in the Electoral College and the popular vote.
- a comfortable Electoral College victory for President Trump — 286–252 — but also a significant popular vote win — 52% — 47%–for former Vice President Biden.
- a narrow Biden win where he leads with less than 1% of the popular vote the day after the election, and is predicted to win 278 electoral votes.
From what I can make out and infer, play consisted of several turns. In each turn game leaders informed teams about the status quo, then gave each team the opportunity to take one or more actions. Actions were steps in the real world, such as filing lawsuits, issuing public statements, leaking to the media, organizing protests, negotiating with other teams, conceding, etc. Chance played very little role.
Each scenario played out differently. For example, during scenario 3, things escalated beyond normal election night events. After a Trump victory was widely announced,
Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.
In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.
That last sentence chills me.
In contrast, a Washington Post article described a play-through of scenario 4 (narrow Biden Electoral College win). This time it’s the Trump team that pressures for “faithless electors.” Media coverage heats up, protests take to the streets… The game report describes this conclusion:
Biden’s electoral victory was certified but Trump refused to leave the White House. He began to burn documents and potentially incriminating evidence, and continued to launch attacks against the legitimacy of the election. President Trump released a series of pardons for members of his administration as well as himself before the Secret Service escorted him out of the White House. But the Secret Service demonstrated its “culture of professionalism” (as one member of the Federal Government Team indicated) by indicating that it would be “loyal to the office, not to the person” and therefore it would escort Trump out of the White House on January 20.
Trump transitions into running TRUMP TV, a new media outlet that immediately upon its founding calls for the impeachment of President Biden.
Read the TIP report for more.
What can we take away from this?
In terms of content, the TIP games show several ways the election could proceed badly, with unfolding political chaos. It also shows some ways to more smoothly transition away from a Trump presidency.
In terms of game and scenario play, these are good examples of how they can be used for learning and exploration of ideas and reality. One of the games’ leaders observed this:
in each of the exercises, the players playing the Trump team were significantly more ruthless and willing to play fast and loose with the truth than the team playing the Biden campaign.
Rendered public to some degree, the games provoke further discussion. For example, one conservative commentator seized on the “Biden” team not accepting the election results in scenario 3. A USA Today article warned of chaos and uncertainty.
I would really like to learn more about the games. But I’d also like to hear your thoughts, both on the simulation as game and on what they forecast about the near future. I would also love to hear from the simulations’ organizers and players.
(thanks to Christopher Rice for supplying some key links)