Day 6·Q&A

How a wargaming exercise predicted the past few months of the 2020 presidential race

Born out of concerns over possible manipulation and disruption of the 2020 US elections, the Transition Integrity Project gathered 100 current and former government officials in June to simulate what could go wrong in this year’s election.

The 4-day simulation became a indication of what was to come

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on July 30 in Washington, D.C. Earlier that day, Trump suggested in a tweet that November’s presidential election should be postponed, citing his unsubstantiated assertions of widespread voter fraud. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the last few months, U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed the only way he could lose the next presidential campaign is if it's rigged, deployed federal agents into Portland, Ore., to quell Black Lives Matter protests and threatened to block funding to aid mail-in voting.

Earlier this year, all those things were scenarios laid out in a wargaming exercise designed to explore how the outcome of the upcoming presidential election could end in tumult. 

In June, about 100 political operatives, academics, journalists and former government officials gathered for a four-day simulation as part of the Transition Integrity Project to figure out what could go wrong in this year's election.

The participants gamed out four scenarios ranging from Trump winning the electoral college to a landslide for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Three of them ended "pretty catastrophically," says Nils Gilman, co-founder of the project and vice-president of programs at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank.

Nils Gilmann is co-founder of the wargaming project and vice-president of programs at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank. (Spencer Lowell )

Gilman spoke to Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho about the implications for democracy in the United States.

Here is part of that conversation.

You gamed out four scenarios that might happen on election day. How many of them ended with a smooth transition of power?

Well, none of them really ended up with what we would traditionally call a smooth transition of power. There were ways in which every one of the scenarios ended up being contested, but three of them ended pretty catastrophically, in the sense that the actual results of the election were contested right down to Inauguration Day, and protests and counter protests in the streets escalated to violence. So it was a pretty grim outcome.

To develop these scenarios, you did wargaming? What is that?

Well, wargaming is a methodology that's been used, as you can tell from the name, primarily by the military, but increasingly also in business contexts, and also by non-profits, as in this case, to explore — effectively the possibility space that you can get into when you're dealing with complex numbers of actors who are behaving in adversarial ways toward one another.

So it's a way of anticipating the dynamic interaction effects that can emerge when you have multiple sets of players, each competing for a prize of some sort.

Police declared a riot around midnight Aug. 15, as Portland protests continued for the 80th consecutive night. One of the scenarios that played out in the wargames, held in June, was the deployment of National Guard to quell left-wing protests, a situation that has since come to pass. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)

How does it work? Do you say, "Well, what if this happens, what if that happens?" and each party has their own interests?

What we did was we posed four different scenarios. We ran the war games four times [with] four different scenarios for the actual electoral outcome, and then in each case, we played out with teams that represented the Trump campaign, that represented the Biden campaign, that represented Democratic elected officials across the country, Republican elected officials across the country, the courts and the media.

So these were all played by teams of people who would simulate what they think those actors would do in a contested election scenario. It's meant to basically allow you to explore and understand what could happen, not what will happen. It's not a prediction. It's more an exploration of the possibilities of things that could take place.

Why did you pick this tool to look at the possible outcomes of the 2020 U.S. elections? You could have brought everyone together just for a conversation.

Originally, we were planning on doing that. And of course, COVID kind of interrupted our planning for this. And the funny thing is the reason why we use this particular methodology — we chose it back this methodology back in February — was partly because we were feeling as if people were complacent about the kinds of disruption risks that exist in the American political system.

And what's happened, of course, in the seven months since then, is we've had this giant pandemic. And I think that's woken people up to the fact that they need to take seriously [possible] long-tail, low-probability, high-impact events. 

In this image from video, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during the Senate committee hearing on Friday. A Republican donor in the past, he testified that his changes for the agency are free of political influence from the White House. (The Associated Press)

And I think one of the reasons why people have become very interested in this set of scenarios we've gamed out is that ... some of the things that we simulated in those games, which we ran back in June, have started to actually take place: the disruption of the mail system, for example, potentially, or Donald Trump calling out federal forces into the streets to attempt to intimidate left-wing protesters.

I mean, these were things that, at the time, seemed like really kind of crazy moves that were being played in the games, but then they've actually been done in real life by Donald Trump now. 
The number of moves that an incumbent president who is uninhibited by norms and unrestrained by his own party can do, completely legally, is really quite disturbing.- Nils Gilman

With that in mind, you just mentioned Portland, here we're talking about the U.S. Postal Service and whether or not it's going to be trustworthy, or whether people are going to trust it following what's happening in the conversation in the U.S. led by Donald Trump. 

Do you think that the other scenarios you imagined might also come to pass in the real world over the next few months?

Well, I should also specify that the thing we were specifically focused on was the period after election day and before Inauguration Day. So November 4 to January 20, that 10-and-a-half week period. But the thing I worry about most with respect to the way the president is currently discussing [and] tweeting about voting by mail, is he's in a sense pre-discrediting the vote and he's trying to sow a narrative with his fans that the only way he can lose is if there's a fraud of some sort. And that therefore that would suggest that they should, at minimum, not respect the next president, not respect a President Biden, not consider him to be a legitimate president and, more extremely, perhaps actually physically resist allowing him to take office should he win.

This week, Joe Biden was officially named the Democratic Presidential nominee. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

We don't know who's going to win, of course. We ran scenarios that explore the entire possibility space ranging from Donald Trump winning the electoral college clearly to a Biden landslide on the other hand, and looked at all sorts of different kinds of scenarios in between, and he's trying to pre-discredit the vote, so that when he loses — if he loses, he can claim he was either robbed of his rightful re-election and then possibly use that as an excuse to set up actually trying to prevent him from being forced from giving up the office.

Nils, I have to say you sound deeply concerned. What do these outcomes tell you about the health of democracy in the United States right now?

Well, obviously, it doesn't say anything very good about the health of the democracy. What I would say is this: when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, what I told everybody is it would be a test of the stability and quality of America's political institutions. And that was, I think, true. What I learned from these war-game processes is just how much of the institutional infrastructure of our democracy relies primarily on norms, rather than de facto or de jure rules. 

The number of moves that an incumbent president who is uninhibited by norms and unrestrained by his own party can do, completely legally, is really quite disturbing. So, there can be things like invoking the insurrection act to bring out troops into the streets, calling for emergency powers that can invoke all sorts of things. These are powers that have existed legally within the constitutional order for a long time, and the only reason they haven't been used to disrupt elections in the past is because there were norms inhibiting incumbents from behaving that way. And those norms were enforced partly by their own party.

And so I think the question you have to ask is, when you look at this particular president, does he respect norms? And when you look at this particular political party that he leads, do we think that if he does choose to disrespect the norms, they will restrain him? I'll leave it to your listeners to decide what they think about that.

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.