This Old Game – President Elect: 1988 Edition

President Elect - 1988 Edition box, Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1987.

President Elect – 1988 Edition box, Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1987.

Growing up, I was always a politics-geek.  The maps, strategy, ‘battle-ground states’, campaigns, elections, etc, I ate it all up.  Beginning in 1981, I had heard of the President Elect series of games, but Strategic Simulations was pretty selective about what they ported to the Atari 8-bit line.  Since Atari is what I was running, I never had a chance to play the first two versions of the game. By 1986, I’d upgraded to an Atari 520ST and in 1987, SSI released the last version of President Elect, the 1988 edition. As luck would have it, this time around SSI made a version for the ST. Political-simulation serendipity had been achieved and hours upon hours of my life would be lost.

President Elect - 1988 Edition box, rear.

President Elect – 1988 Edition box, rear.

Originally developed by Nelson G. Hernandez, Sr., President Elect changed little from its original release in 1981, but, if it ain’t broke… The game engine allowed users to manage historical campaigns, from 1960 through 1988. Users could also chose to play completely new scenarios, either using historical match-ups or theoretical ones – Reagan and Kennedy could face-off in 1960, for example. While users were not able to modify demographic data in the game, you could customize the game by setting GNP and Unemployment rates, whether or not the country was at war, and, if so, how popular the war was, etc.

President Elect - 1988 Edition, box contents.

President Elect – 1988 Edition, box contents.

President Elect ’88 includes 69 potential candidates for the Presidency, but it also allows you to design your own candidate as well. For Candidate Creation, the first step is answering a series of questions, to indicate how strongly the candidate agrees, or disagrees with certain ‘litmus test’ positions.  This series of twenty-one questions of these allows the game to generate a composite political-spectrum score for the candidate, across a range of issues – economic, social and foreign policy (generally Cold War policies), on a scale of 0 to 100 (conservative to liberal).  Then the player chooses 1-to-10 scores to reflect a candidates speaking ability, their personal magnetism, and their poise – or ability to avoid gaffes and other mistakes.  The last step is the choose the home states for your tickets candidates for President and Vice President, which is the only attribute given to the prospective VP.

President Elect '88's list of pre-included candidates and their ratings.

President Elect ’88’s list of the included candidates and their ratings.

The game does allow for third-parties, but they are limited to ‘Independent’ runs, such as George Wallace or John Anderson, rather than a reflection of the myriad of third-parties in the US.  Meaning, you can’t have strong Independent and strong Libertarian candidates running at the same time – three-way races are the maximum.  Of course, taken in context of functional reality, this makes sense, even today.  That said, I always through it would be interesting to create a crazy, 4-or-more-way “What If” contest to become PotUS.

President Elect - 1988 Edition, title screen (PC version).

President Elect – 1988 Edition, title screen (PC version).

Campaign management is the most frequent role played in President Elect.  Right off the bat, you’ll need to decide if you want to send either your Presidential or VP candidates on a trip overseas, selecting either a friendly, neutral, or unfriendly country, and for how many days.  In my experience, the foreign trip is a total crapshoot that costs too many campaign resources, which also reduces the candidates ability to campaign.  If you are going to send someone, make it the Veep.  After that, you are into the game, which revolves around managing your candidates time and travel schedule.  More than that, you are responsible for the campaigns limited supply of Political Action Points (PAP), a catch-all measure for the campaign’s finances, staff levels, etc.  Woe to the third-party campaign, suffering it’s inherent structural disadvantages, receiving about 1/10th of major parties PAP’s.

President Elect '88 candidate creation questionnaire.

President Elect ’88 candidate creation questionnaire.

As campaign manager, the player guides their campaign through 9 weeks, each one representing a game turn.  Every week, random events may occur, economic indicator reports, foreign events, etc.  And, unlike Presidential campaigns these days, there are several opportunity for a debate, although a campaign can choose to not participate without appreciable consequences.  In President Elect debates consist of 5 questions, and is only time in the game where the player shifts from the campaign manager role to the candidate.  Since the candidate’s positions on these questions is already known through the candidate creation process, the game handles debates in an interesting, and, I think, elegant fashion.

President Elect '88, debate screen.

President Elect ’88, debate screen.

As seen on the debate screen above, the player indicates how much time their candidate will spend constructing their argument for/against a particular position.  The algorithm used here is pretty complex for circa 1981, punishing candidates who are too negative (attack), too ‘eggheady’ (relevant considerations) or untrustworthy (kill time).  At the same time, you cannot just state your position, and contrast it, or you come off too robotic.  I always found that debates are crap-shoot, and are best avoided unless your candidate is losing or slipping badly.

President Elect '88, debate winner screen.

President Elect ’88, debate winner screen.

The key to President Elect, as in real-life campaigns, is managing your PAP’s through Election Day, spending them on swing states, as well as states where your opponents support is soft.  As a political simulation, President Elect was always deep, allowing campaigns to concentrate advertising nationally, regionally, as well as at the individual state level.  Advertising only goes so far, nothing beats personal appearances by the candidate, as seen below where Kennedy’s advertising plus appearances in the Industrial Midwest are crushing Nixon advertising alone.

President Elect '88, campaign screen.

President Elect ’88, campaign summary screen.

I wish I could find out more about Nelson G. Hernandez Sr., because he created a remarkably deep campaign-simulation, that is also fun and approachable.  I certainly spent a ridiculous number of hours playing this game.  President Elect is, like Balance Of Power, an incredible ‘software time capsule’.  Unfortunately, SSI dropped the franchise before the most interesting presidential election in a generation, the 1992 3-way race between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.  Mindscape, distributor of Balance of Power, did release their own election-simulator, Power Politics, in 1992.  While it was graphically superior, being for Windows, and deeper, allowing for advertising and campaign-stops down to individual cities within states, it was far less user-friendly than President Elect. The “Playing A Spreadsheet” phenomena, for me at least.

Election night

Election night

The fact that SSI had a semi-successful franchise of political-simulations in the 1980’s shows how incredibly different today’s computer game market is.  Certainly niche titles are still developed and released, but not by major Publishers, like SSI was.  These days, big Publishers tend to stick with the bread-and-butter FPS, MMO, RTS,  and sports-game franchises.  President Elect: 1988 Edition1, while not rising to the status of Gamechanger, was always quite interesting, entertaining, fun, and one of my very favorite computer games.

Update: October 6th, 2015 –

Charles Bethea, from the comments below, was able to track down President Elect’s creator, Nelson G. Hernandez, Sr., and interviewed him, as well as some other folks involved in the development of the game. Please be sure to check out Charles’ fascinating article at New Yorker Magazine’s web site.

President Elect Campaign Strategy Sheet

President Elect Campaign Strategy Sheet

Update: March 31, 2017 –

While going though the manual for President Elect ’88, I came across this great “Campaign Strategy Sheet”.  Originally you would photocopy it and use it to track each turn of your games.  Here it is in PDF format, for all of the President Elect fans out there.

References   [ + ]

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Mike Knotts

Mike Knotts was born in 1968 in a small town in southern Indiana. Even when very young, Mike showed a love for all-things technical and sci-fi. Moving with his family to California in the early 80's, he eventually graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in History. Rather than put that to good use, Mike continued to pursue his passion for technology by working for early, regional ISP's in the mid 1990's. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he works as a project manager for an Internet startup. Mike is a co-founder of Geekometry.

13 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    Just recently found this game on a site called archive.org and have enjoyed playing it again. I had President Elect and President Elect 1988 for my Apple IIC back in the 80’s. I have played countless simulations and scenarios, my favorite being Reagan vs. Kennedy (great debates). I am going to look for Power Politics on this site as well. Great article!!!!

  2. Mike Raport says:

    Highest I got for “88 was 107M using (D) Lee Iacocca – Missouri (Gephardt) vs. (R)Jack Kemp – Indiana (Lugar).now I’ll redouble efforts to match 117M.

  3. JJ says:

    I still play this game, and have done so many different simulations Ive lost count. One thing I like to do is to see what kind of combinations will lead to the highest possible voter turnout for the 1988 election, and with two 9-magnetism candidates, VPs from big states, and both candidates as moderate-mainstream views, Ive been able to get to 119 million total votes, including more than 12m votes in CA, and 8m votes in NY. In a blowout, the highest total votes Ive been able to get for one candidate, is a fictional 9-9-9 candidate that received 67 million votes. Ive also been able to win the electoral college despite losing the popular vote decisively, once winning with over 300 EV despite losing the popular vote by 3 million as a moderate 9-magnetism Democrat against a popular incumbent President GHW Bush, using a Big State Strategy that works if you are being the Democrat and targets wins in CA TX FL NY MA PA OH MI IL added to a few smaller states. Hilariously the 2016 election played out with similar results, except with the GOP winning.

    One thing I would like to do is find out how to edit the game files in a Hex Editor, but I am unfamiliar with how to re-code things. If anyone knows how to do it, please contact me at coachjj84@gmail.com

    I am a massive fan of this game, and would love to help make an updated version with updated candidate policy questions, updated state electoral vote totals, and updated state political leanings. Obviously, modern candidates too.

    Its crazy how strong of a simulation Nelson Hernandez created, still holds up pretty well. I would love to get the chance to contact him.

  4. Mike Raport says:

    In my version of PresElect ’88 Bill Clinton is included – but not listed on the back of the booklet. I , too, wish there was an updated version. I still play it, inventing current candidates just with electoral vote distribution and pop vote totals of the ’88 option.

  5. Tim Mullin says:

    I am really glad I came across this article. I have a copy of this game because I, too, am a political geek. I was surprised to find a number of candidates not listed in the manual, as well. Being from Indiana and having worked for former Governor Evan Bayh, I believe I remember finding him, as well. I wish there were an updated version of this game with great input from Nate Silver and 538.com. It would be incredible. Thanks. It was a fun walk down memory lane.

    • Mike Knotts says:

      Hi Tim. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you liked the article. I’m from Indy as well, born in Muncie. Given how old PE:1988 is, and that Evan didn’t enter Congress until 1999, I’m wondering if the “Bayh” you found isn’t Birch? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birch_Bayh

      Great idea, RE – an updated version with FiveThirtyEight data, I’d love that. BTW, if you have not, be sure to check out the New Yorker article linked at the end of this one.

  6. Hi Mike, I’m a journalist with a few questions for you about President Elect. Mind shooting me an email? charles.bethea@gmail.com
    Thanks!

  7. Reg Tiller says:

    I think Bill Clinton does work. He’s not listed. This was a great game. I spent hours on my Commodore 64 playing this. Loved the returns and how realistic it was. Is there any newer political games that can come close? I’ve

  8. Ben says:

    Have you ever found a complete list of playable candidates for this game? I’m always trying different names, sometimes surprised that they work.

    • Mike Knotts says:

      Hi Ben,

      That’s a good question, and the answer is “Yes”. On the back of the game manual, there is a list of all the pre-built candidates you can run. I’ve scanned the page and added it to the article. Have fun!

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