Thanks in large part to this “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics” course I’m currently teaching, I’ve been more aware than usual of parallels between poker and political campaigns. Thus did I sit up for a moment after Scott Walker tossed out that line that he’d “love to play cards with [the president]... because Barack Obama folds on everything with Iran.”
That’s a line the Wisconsin governor’s been using for a while now, and it didn’t necessarily earn him much in the way of “chips” last night, given how several other candidates immediately stepped on it by, pleading “Jake! Jake” to get moderator Jake Tapper to pick them next.
Meanwhile -- thanks again to the class -- I continue to be more focused on the presidential races from 1960, 1968, and 1972 than on the 2016 one.
In 1968 Nixon won the presidency with 301 electoral votes, not a lot more than the 270 needed to be elected. Hubert Humphrey finished with 191 and George Wallace 46; if those two had picked up a couple of states between them, Nixon would have come up short and the decision would have been thrown to the House of Representatives.
The popular vote was also close between RMN and HHH, with Nixon finishing with about 31.78 million to Humphrey’s 31.27 million, while Wallace picked up about 9.9 million votes.
The polls were kind of remarkable during the last few days leading up to the 1968 election, with Nixon leading relatively comfortably until Lyndon B. Johnson’s “October surprise” announcement of a halt on bombing in North Vietnam on the Wednesday before the election.
For a day or two, the prospect of peace seemed imminent, and Humphrey surged. Then all was thrown into doubt when word emanated from South Vietnam that they weren’t necessarily on board with the agreement. “Saigon Opposes Paris Talk Plans, Says It Can’t Attend Next Week” went the headline in The New York Times that Saturday. Voters didn’t know what to think.
(Nixon, of course, is alleged by many to have had a direct role in South Vietnam’s sudden about-face, with Nixon campaign contributor Anna Chennault acting as an agent in what LBJ would describe as a treasonous act by RMN.)
The polls went kind of wacko from day-to-day, with Nixon up, then he and Humphrey even, then Humphrey even up briefly before Tuesday arrived. If the poll numbers were extrapolated to estimate the ultimate number of votes each would receive, the totals would resemble chip stacks at a tournament final table, with each enjoying the edge briefly until the vote finally froze the “stacks” once and for all.
The analogy only works, really, if we think of these final “players” as engaged in a cash game from which they have to leave at a preappointed time, with Nixon having finished up just enough to be declared the game’s winner. It’s hard not to resist thinking of the race in tourney terms, though, with one player effectively finishing with all the chips (even if that player doesn’t even enjoy a majority of the popular vote).
Right now the Republicans have 15 players left. (There are more declared candidates, but it appears only 15 have “chips” at present, with several of those on very short stacks.) Meanwhile Democrats have five candidates who are being recognized as “in the game,” with Biden sounding as though he may be taking a seat after all.
That’s still multiple tables’ worth of players. It’s the early levels, though, and so, like in a tournament, the stack sizes don’t mean very much as yet.