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Video Game / The Campaign Trail

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Do you have what it takes to win a Presidential Election?

The Campaign Trail is an interactive simulator of various select American elections, from 1844 to 2016.

The player must select one of the main presidential candidates for their chosen election, and a corresponding vice president. They are then presented with a series of choices on relevant issues for that election, as well as in more modern elections which states to campaign in.The campaign map shows the rough percentage vote each state is likely to have for each candidate on election day, which changes depending on the choices the player makes. Each state has different stances on five core values that broadly define how that election's issues are categorised - so, for instance, in 1860 most Southern states are forcibly pro-slavery while northern states have a variety of anti-slavery opinions. Hence, every state will react differently to the player's choices, making winning many of them a difficult prospect.


There are only 25 to be made, at the end of which the votes are counted up according to the American electoral system, with whoever wins enough Electoral Votes becoming president. (Nobody getting over the line is a different story entirely.)

The result is chaotic and comedic political carnage as a new player stumbles their way through one terrible, inconsistent choice after another, eventually getting a feel for what works in each time and becoming able to strategize effectively.

You can play it here, and there is also an active modding community, whose additions can be played here.


The Campaign Trail contains examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: Several candidates who seemingly cannot lose tend to be brought short on one particular issue. For Jimmy Carter, it's his honesty compelling him to speak too openly in his Playboy interview - there's even an option for him to refuse to back down on some of his more explicitly political statements on the same basis.
  • Ad Hominem: One of the most common strategies throughout almost the entire game. Save for a few elections like 1844, personal attacks can usually gain ground for at least one side. George Wallace unsurprisingly provides probably the most blatant example of this, in being able to attack Nixon for being a "Californian interloper". George H. W. Bush's campaign practically revolves around this. Subverted in the 1976 campaign; going against Gerald Ford as Jimmy Carter makes you sound petty and negative, while going after Carter as Ford not only alienates you from a public which likes Carter, but also backfires due to the looming issue of the Nixon pardon.
  • Adminisphere: Implied to be the Johnson Administration by anyone who chooses to continually rails against its bureaucrats - most likely to be Wallace.
  • Advertising Campaigns: They make their first appearance in 1896 with McKinley able to fund nationwide distribution and manipulate the media, and Bryan able to make a speech in New York City resulting in nationwide press coverage. Grow more and more prominent towards the present day; a failure as Obama or Romney to respond to the other's campaign will result in them being buried under shady ads. George H. W. Bush can put this to especially good use, with his "Willie Horton" furloughs ad.
  • Affectionate Nickname: "The Great Commoner" for Bryan.
  • Agree to Disagree: Commonly used, especially when controversial topics like abortion come up, as a way to give a non-committal, uncontroversial answer.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: You'll probably have to sacrifice your pride if you want to maintain reasonable odds of winning, like going to prominent political figures for their support, or repairing breaches within your party to stand united against the opposition.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: George W. Bush's DUI in Maine, which comes up near the end of the 2000 election. Whether he chooses to acknowledge it was idiocy is a different matter entirely.
  • All There in the Manual: Each campaign contains several pieces of Further Reading at the end, and you're probably going to need them if you're not already familiar with the campaign's context.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: George H. W. Bush and even debate moderator Bernard Shaw needle Dukakis with plenty of these, which he is unable to answer satisfactorily.
  • Asshole Victim: If J.F.K. or McKinley are sufficiently tricksy about how they come by the presidency, or if Wallace does what Wallace does, we’re sure you're not going to feel particularly troubled knowing their future fate.
  • Badass Normal: Of all people, Gerald Ford ends up as president at the end of the Nixon era. "I'm a normal, approachable, friendly President. I didn't spend my whole life trying to run for the office."
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • Depending on your interpretation, this can be almost always. Yes, you won it all and made it to the presidency, but who and what did you have to sacrifice to do it? How much will you actually be able to do for people, how many promises can you deliver on, who did you have to abandon along the way? Conversely, if you lost the game due to principled stands, you may have stayed true to who you are, but you'll not be able to do much with that - likely returning to a Senatorship or Governorship, or even lower down the rungs.
    • Abraham Lincoln winning in 1860 is this: the victory message outright tells you "don't celebrate just yet" and that South Carolina is planning a secession convention.
  • Blatant Lies: There are many, many examples, most prominent amongst them being Nixon strenuously denying that he sunk the Paris peace negotiations. Really, it's all part and parcel of the business.
  • Butt-Monkey: Stephen A. Douglas in 1860. His philosophy of Popular Sovereignty is a total failure and his only arguments consist of saying that others' policies are in line with his ideas, the party has split in half under his leadership, nobody wants to vote for him and there's practically no hope of outright victory - scratch that, there IS no way to straight-up win with Douglas. His last choice of the campaign can literally be to admit his campaign is hopeless and try (and, of course, fail) to prevent the natural consequences of the win he's just delivered to the Republicans.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: If your arguments get too obscure, you can come off as this. Michael Dukakis is especially good at puzzling observers with everything from his arcane legal interpretations to confusing advertisements.
  • Crapsack World:
    • If the Republicans don't win the election in 1860, whoever becomes president in a contingent election will most likely enshrine slavery into law via a constitutional amendment.
    • In a "milder" example, George Wallace managing to deadlock the Electoral College might lead to the end of desegregation.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: If you make a couple crucial missteps, or really play anything but perfectly on the harder difficulties, the game fast turns into this.
  • Deal with the Devil: The Northern Democrats can end up cooperating with their Southern firebreathing slaver counterparts so as to try and block a Lincoln Republican presidency.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Obviously. For example, promising to grant blacks voting rights while campaigning as Abraham Lincoln is a quick way to sink your campaign.
  • Determinator: Richard Nixon. His historic loss in 1960 isn't enough to stop him, as he's back in 1968. Similarly, Nelson Rockefeller also emerges as a Vice Presidential candidate in both these years. Most impressively, Strom Thurmond runs as an independent in 1948 if Truman doesn't remove the civil rights plank, then can reappear in Wallace's independent campaign twenty years later.
  • Downer Ending: The game itself will sometimes call attention to these. A frequent case is electoral deadlock, where the results on election night are insufficient to decide a presidential candidate; this almost always throws the election to the whim of segregationists, or even worse, slavers in the 1860 election.
  • The Dragon: The opposition's Vice President.
  • Enemy Mine: There are a few elections like this:
    • McKinley can cooperate with Gold Democrat John Palmer to bring down Bryan, and Nader can choose to focus on stopping Bush.
    • 1860 takes the cake: Northern and Southern Democrats and Constitutional Unionists, despite all hating each other, can all start working together on the sole goal of preventing the Republicans getting elected.
  • From Bad to Worse: In 1948, there is concern about Soviet expansionism across the world, in 1960 there is considerable worry that they have won in various areas, and in 1968 America is consumed by Vietnam. The Cold War is going none too hot.
  • The Hero: Usually averted. Generally speaking, regardless of what the player considers to be a heroic course of action, they'll never be able to win with this; they'll have to make some political compromises.
  • A Hero to His Hometown: Many candidates, especially Vice Presidents, are this. Chris Christie is a notable exception, because while this was once the case, support for him has plummeted after a scandal in New Jersey.
  • Hidden Depths: The public often see more of these in candidates as the campaigns roll on. Depending on first impressions, this may be a good or a bad thing.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Nixon sabotaging the peace negotiations so as to secure his lead can promptly come back to bite him, if the truth is revealed to the public.
    • Jimmy Carter's promises of honesty, and to "never tell a lie", rapidly derail his campaign in his infamous Playboy interview and in backing him into a debate with Ford, and he'll spend the rest of his campaign trying to put the pieces back together again.
  • Hot-Blooded: Various candidates can be this at various times, but Harry Truman probably takes the cake, giving Dewey hell and slamming the 80th "Do-Nothing" Congress at every possible opportunity. (Dewey himself, if he repeats his 1944 tactics, can also retain a reasonable degree of this.)
  • A House Divided: The most obvious example is of course the 1860 election, where North-South divisions in the Democratic Party mean secession is practically inevitable, no matter what. But it's a recurrent theme throughout various eras, as minor parties and candidates split off, like the "States' Rights" Democratic Party offshoot in the 1948 election if Harry Truman doesn't remove the civil rights plank.
  • Karma Houdini: Richard Nixon if his schemes aren't called out; averted if they are. Arguably Gerald Ford if the Nixon pardon isn't enough to end his presidency, and George W. Bush if his concealment of his past drug use and DUI doesn't do the same for him.
  • Kick the Dog: Plenty of actions, particularly taken against candidates losing the race badly, can constitute this, but probably the best example is McKinley's option to run a "45-state" campaign, so as to make the repudiation of Bryan total. Of course, this can backfire badly...
  • The Lancer: Vice Presidential picks are sometimes intended to be this. For instance, Lyndon B. Johnson complements John F. Kennedy nicely; Kennedy attracts liberals in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while Johnson wins the conservatives of the South.
  • Large Ham: George Wallace definitely qualifies. You can tell every choice made for him by the inflammatory language it uses, with many one-liners and zingers. Harry Truman, if he chooses to up the ante with the HUAC, can come off as grandstanding. Finally, the revised 2016 scenario leans hard into Donald Trump's style of speaking.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Nixon trying to sabotage the peace negotiations, then lie about doing so, can be promptly exposed to the world. Generally, going too overboard in abandoning your principles will result in this as the electorate comes after you, such as Bryan bowing to the corrupt Tammany Hall in New York or Carter claiming he was misquoted about LBJ.
  • A Lesson in Defeat: The game itself serves as one. Even if you know a lot about the era you choose, you're probably going to misstep at some point. The only way to learn consistent strategies to beat it is to get defeated in the general election, seeing which decisions brought you the most grief and which states you could've swung to win the whole thing.
  • A Lesson Learned Too Well: Candidates sometimes get the option to try to put past mistakes behind them, but this will not always bring benefits. Disavowing the "true" platform of radicals like George McGovern or Barry Goldwater will hurt you with the faithful, and pigeonhole your politics. Generally, attempting to carry strategy from one election to the next is a bad idea. Losing an election because you leaned too far to one side, and then trying to play for the other wing, is also typically doomed to fail; you're going to need a more nuanced, case-by-case approach to win the critical swing states.
  • Luck-Based Mission: If you're presented with multiple choices with the same text — often involving whether to debate your opponent — you've got one of these. In some years there's also the luck element of which questions come up.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: On 1968, candidates can react to the Loving v. Virginia ruling overturning anti-miscegenation statutes, and can oppose it.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Naturally, Nixon. His sabotage of the Paris peace negotiations comes to light for the other candidates in the last days of the election, with Humphrey receiving LBJ's intel from his bugging network, and Wallace catching onto the rumors. If his crime is exposed, he retaliates with further shooting back at the Democrats.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Trying to consolidate your support will backfire if you take positions too far from your core stances; the gain in the traditional enemy base will usually be outweighed by the loss to your own.
  • No Campaign for the Wicked: Averted; you can play as most major candidates in the elections given, including the likes of George Wallace.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: If your policies hew close enough to those of your opponent, you may find yourself having this realisation. What sets apart a liberal Rockefeller Republican like Rockefeller himself or Thomas Dewey from a socially progressive, economically moderate-conservative Democrat? The game sometimes explicitly comments on this - if you argue for minimising busing while retaining its spirit or passing the Equal Rights Amendment as Jimmy Carter, it will be noted that President Gerald Ford and other mainstream politicians share your views.
  • Oh, Crap!: Happens often after making simply terrible political decisions.
  • Only Sane Man: A common self-portrayal by candidates. McKinley can stand behind this, against the radicalism of Bryan. Amusingly, George Wallace and Richard Nixon both try for this in the same year.
  • Pet the Dog: Courtesy of arguably the game's single worst candidate, George Wallace: "You know, beyond the racial thing I do have other policies. I have worked tirelessly in Alabama on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, and I will do the same as President of the United States."
  • The Rival: Whoever the opposing President is.
  • Shmuck Bait: The game will frequently put options in front of you that seem reasonable, but provoke a livid response. Seemingly benign discussions about Social Security or Medicare will fast leave you labelled as a radical. Your every musing on arcane debates like Darwinism and the Founding Fathers will come under intense scrutiny. And don't even think about beginning an earnest discussion about topics like euthanasia.
  • Scary Black Man: George Wallace can support the death penalty for Black Panthers as traitors.
  • The Scrappy: Douglas, in-universe. A few presidents also occupy this spot for a time - Harry Truman and Gerald Ford are not popular at all at the start of their runs, and George H. W. Bush is seen as tainted by the Iran-Contra scandal as vice-president.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Averted: slavery is a campaign issue in antebellum runs. However, suggestions of reopening the Atlantic slave trade cannot be embraced, only dismissed or used as evidence the adversaries cannot compromise.
  • The Stoic: As the game doesn't include incidents like Edmond Muskie crying in response to the Canuck letter in 1972, coming off as the stoic one is usually portrayed as a bad thing. Nixon, especially in 1960, struggles with coming off as cold.
  • Tempting Fate: Listening to your advisers as Thomas Dewey and resting on your laurels, on the assumption there's no way Truman can come back unless you hand it to him.
  • Undying Loyalty: It is noted that certain Vice-Presidential candidates like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole and Howard Baker are good, reliable party men - important in a world where political figures can end up at ends with one coming off second best, such as Humphrey's choice to split from the Johnson administration, or candidate Charles Evans Hughes having to contest former President Theodore Roosevelt's talking points.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: With the exception of a couple snakes like Nixon, it can be argued that almost anyone, should they take too radical positions, is this. Opposing the Equal Rights Amendment due to specific concerns you hold is a good example. Even the infamous George Wallace comes off as this at times, saying, "You know, beyond the racial thing I do have other policies. I have worked tirelessly in Alabama on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, and I will do the same as President of the United States." He really is trying to do what he believes is the best thing for at least the whites of the Deep's just absolutely terrible how he goes about it.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: If you go against what your core base expects of you, this usually results.