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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Presidential Primary Horse Racing and The Wonderful 1237

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - A total lack of substance from the media, which directed the narratives.

I absolutely highly recommend reading these two articles from the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy: Part 1 covering the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries from beginning to the end of 2015, and Part 2 covering the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries from 2016 to their conclusion. They're fantastically written, and serve as all of the background you'll need if you weren't following the presidential primary season of 2015–2016. And shame on you if you weren't, since KoopaTV did.

The conclusion is that the media — the gatekeeper of information between what was going on in politics (and the candidates) and you, the American voter — is institutionally unable to provide coverage on what is actually important (issues, substance) and instead focuses its coverage on “horse race” style reporting: Who is winning/losing in the polls, and how the day's events will change that. This is because of the values of news organisations (talk about whatever is... y'know, new and exciting). There's little discussion on actual merits of policy. It got to the point that Slate.com literally has a horse-racing animation with the candidates, and other websites had similar things going on at the time.

The percentage of media coverage on the horse race vs. substance.
Note how it's the reverse of what's helpful for voters (you want substance to be able to decide early).
This figure provided in Part 2 of the Shorenstein Center's analysis.

While journalists dislike when people describe their reporting as a horse race — it's a pejorative term —  they don't actually change what they're doing. That makes it great fodder for sites like KoopaTV, which thrives on lampooning such absurdities. For example, two weeks ago, I wrote about Game Freak's Pocket Card Jockey, a horse-racing solitaire game with very deep mechanics, and said it was the basis for The Wonderful 1237, KoopaTV's end-of-2016 videogame release that is a satire of the Republican presidential primary process. (It's also a fantastic game in its own right, so if you have a Flash-enabled device, go play it at that just-linked web page.)

The key thing to note there is that a game that is literally about racing horses directly inspired and influenced a game about presidential primary campaigning, and it worked so incredibly well. That's a rather dismal state of affairs for how America picks its top elected official, isn't it? As a satire, The Wonderful 1237 took things up a notch, but the basic cores translated nicely.

The Wonderful 1237 KoopaTV results phase Rand Paul delegates Roxy
Roxy reporting in The Wonderful 1237 what Rand Paul's delegate count is after Iowa.

In The Wonderful 1237, the media, or at least the media that the protagonist consumes, is represented by KoopaTV (product placement) and our wonderful staff member Roxy. KoopaTV's sole method of presidential primary coverage is to say the results of each primary (with % in that primary and total delegate count), and then to give a list of candidates that dropped out, if any. Roxy then ends the segment by saying, “For up-to-the-minute coverage on the Republican primaries, head over to KoopaTV dot org. This is Roxy, signing out!”

That up-to-the-minute coverage is all about the horse race. It's not about policy proposal analysis, which the media won't cover or discuss. In real life, did you actually know what Marco Rubio's policy proposals were, or did you just know that Donald Trump called him Lil’ Marco and that he was a short-circuiting water-obsessed robot who got wrecked by Chris Christie in that one debate? Even Bernie Sanders, who was campaigning just to spread his policy proposals, was mostly ignored on a policy basis according to that Shorenstein Center analysis. The media and Internet culture just reduces candidates to soundbites and memes. Whenever we talked in the [Koopa Keep] AIM Blast about the primaries (which was just about every day), it wasn't about policy, but about the horse-race and outrageous spectacle kind of things. It's how you get to the point of Politics-As-Entertainment and can actually observe it in a non-partisan way without getting into fights. That's nice for socialising, but bad in the long-run.

Of course, the way The Wonderful 1237 portrays the other candidates, as you've seen if you've played it (or as you'll see when you play it later... or, as you'll see when Wonderful Wednesdays gets into strategy guides), is in an absurdist exaggerated way playing on a meme-driven aspect of them. For the most part, they're unflattering portrayals.

In the game, your campaign manager, Sergei Goldwitz, knows the American electorate and how it will make voting decisions without considering actual policy, and convinces the protagonist to eschew actual policy development, to his dismay. Why bother with policies if people don't vote based on them?

The Wonderful 1237 dialogue might win the Republican nomination without policies
If you recall the beginning of the game, the protagonist WANTED to make policies.

You can go through the game in any number of ways, none of which involve presenting to the American people anything substantive. Rallies are flattering the crowd so they'll vote for you, and negative ads are false and ridiculous attacks on other candidates’ characters as people. You don't impress other candidates with your ideas, but rather based on... uh... whatever silly minigame they have. It's sort of similar to how Pocket Card Jockey has you winning horse races without anything relating to horse-racing (besides whipping your horse).

You also conduct internal polls (that are leased) that estimate how well your message is playing in that state's particular electorate, compared to the other candidates. In the world of The Wonderful 1237, there are apparently no external polls (at least none shown or mentioned on-screen), which is a bit different than real life where polls are taken just so the media can have something to talk about. It's polling-as-the-news-story. Of course, in real life, polls are also rigged, and media outlets report on them to shape the narrative and depress turnout by making candidates seem less (or more) well-liked than they actually are. At least in The Wonderful 1237, you pay for accuracy and it's all mathematically derived.

Society runs into problems when they elect people based off a cult of personality, media perceptions, or memetic status, rather than policies. For example: Right now the House Republicans, under Speaker Paul Ryan, has announced and will put to a vote a disastrous health care reform bill that is ObamaCare Lite, which is rightly condemned by actual conservatives like Senator Rand Paul.



Back in the February 25 debate where the above video comes from (and discussed here on KoopaTV), presidential candidate Donald Trump's only policy prescription for health care reform was to allow interstate competition by removing “the lines around the states.” He repeated that reform multiple times that night, finally concluding that “there is nothing to add. What's to add? What is to add?”

ObamaCare Lite doesn't even get rid of the lines around the states. President Donald John Trump promises that will happen in “phase 2 & 3”, but people who know politics will tell you that subsequent phases don't happen in Washington D.C. and this is your only chance to get it right.

That's what happens when you don't run on policy: Whatever your vision was, it never happens, because you didn't campaign for that vision. Should the protagonist of The Wonderful 1237 win in the horse race and somehow the general election, how would he govern? With the best of intentions, of course, but that doesn't mean much. ...And if you make it to the last round of The Wonderful 1237 and read the wonderfully-written dialogue, there's quite a bit of hints as to what would happen in a Bravura Blaze administration...


Next time on Wonderful Wednesdays, Ludwig will discuss how the dynamics and mechanics of The Wonderful 1237 are a commentary on the electoral process, which is also where the Pocket Card Jockey comparisons become more apparent. Ludwig is much more into actual policy than KoopaTV's other staff members, and he would discuss it further if KoopaTV's audience was at all interested. He suspects they're not. Go play The Wonderful 1237.


All about the dynamics and mechanics about The Wonderful 1237!

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