The Other Person's Game

Poker and Politics

Poker Politics"Never play the other fellow's game."
-- Michael Shayne, Private Detective

The 2004 US Presidential election offered a solid poker lesson: never play the other person's game.

After the 2000 Presidential election, America remained sharply polarized. The 2004 election seemed certain to be close no matter who won. President George W. Bush went into the election very unpopular. Not since Harry Truman has the United States reelected a President even close to as unpopular as Bush. At the same time, the way the political process works in the US, candidates from the opposing party had to decide to oppose Bush in 2003, when he was at a much higher point in personal popularity. After initially flirting with the polarized choice of Howard Dean, in the beginning of 2004, when Bush's popularity began to take a nosedive, Democratic Party voters choose the more mainstream choice of John Kerry to oppose Bush.

Unlike Bush, Kerry was a war hero, and Democrats hoped this fact would turn the tide of history: no US President has ever been turned out of office during a time of war. Never... now including 2004. Despite this daunting fact, Kerry had a lot going for him, including Bush's increasing unpopularity and "the war drags on" inertia in Iraq. What George Bush had in his corner was Karl Rove, who ran an excellent campaign for the President, a one sentence gaffe by Kerry from which he never recovered, and a Kerry campaign that no winning poker player would undertake.

According to public opinion polls all year long, Kerry's positions on almost all major issues were supported by a clear plurality of people over Bush's views. The economy, abortion rights, you name it, Kerry was favored. One issue had mixed messages, depending on how questions were asked... the war in Iraq. The one area where Bush was clearly favored over Kerry was "fighting terrorism". So what did Kerry do?

He devoted most of his campaign rhetoric to the issue of terrorism!


His second most common theme was the mixed message morass of the Iraq war. Double duh.

Instead of focusing on the economy, where voters clearly favored him, or the slam-dunk issue of the exploding federal deficit and a national debt that (at the time) grew by 1.6 billion dollars a DAY, or even polarizing hot button issues like abortion rights, Kerry instead decided to fight the election out on Bush's turf... terrorism. This led to encouraging the amazing spectacle of people in Toledo or Grand Rapids actually worrying about terrorism hitting their hometowns. This is like a person falling into a pit of poisonous snakes worrying about a nuclear attack. Of course terrorism is a serious issue, but it isn't the only issue, and it certainly is not the main issue that faces the vast majority of the people on a day to day basis. Pocketbook issues do that. But Kerry didn't fight the battle of the economy/deficit/debt to any serious degree. He fought on the other guy's turf, or at least, on turf where the other guy was more popular than he was on the other issues.

Kerry also granted Karl Rove one of the greatest gifts of modern politics when he made that "I actually voted for it before I voted against it" sentence. Kerry was instantly portrayed as a "flip-flopper". Then others attacked and belittled Kerry's war record. How did Kerry respond? Well, mostly by letting it blow over. It mostly did, but still, instead of beating that "war hero" status over the head of the American public (which he did during the Democratic primaries), he mostly played it down, apparently not wanting to inflame those who attacked his military service. Instead, he went back to focusing on terrorism and, less so, Iraq. Karl Rove's face must have been hurting all fall from the smiling he was doing as Kerry kept coming back to the turf where his guy, Bush, looked the best to the American voter.

As poker players, don't be John Kerry. Yes, it is good to work to improve your weaknesses, but do not let them be the focus of the games you play. It would be like playing a person head-up, and letting him have the button position every hand. Yes, it is good to work on playing from the disadvantage of not having the button, but it is absurd to let an opponent have the better position every hand you play. To the best of your ability, get your opponents to play your game, not the other way around.

Fortunately this article doesn't have as its focus that 18th century bit of poppycock known as the Electoral College. Despite losing by 3.5 million votes, John Kerry would be President if 65,000 voters voted differently. It's no coincidence that when America goes around the world to Iraq or Afghanistan championing democracy that never once have these words been uttered: "You should establish yourself an Electoral College."

See also Manipulating Opponents and Confusion to the Enemy