Playing Politics

A group of entrepreneurs takes the world of online fantasy sports to nerdy new depths.

Feeling shut out of the political process? You should. For starters, Coloradans will never get the pleasure of snubbing pooped-out presidential wannabes like Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Liddy Dole, since our primary election doesn't roll around until March 10, long after New Hampshire and Iowa have made mincemeat of their campaigns.

And then there's money. US West may be able to pump $100,000 into John McCain's campaign, but the rest of us probably will never be able to afford our own Capitol Hill lackey. In the game of politics, dear voter, you are a big loser.

Enter a group of young Net-heads and political junkies who have joined forces in Denver to bring the dead-end world of our nation's realpolitik into the limitless realm of fantasy. By the end of February, www.fantasyelections.com -- which uses online fantasy sports leagues as its model -- plans to give ordinary members of the citizenry the chance to test their political acumen as online consultants for candidates of their choosing.

Players will select a roster of ten political hopefuls culled from the nation's congressional and senatorial campaigns and compete against other players' selections. And just as in real life, winning the election is not the only measure of success. The amount of money a candidate raises will also be considered when officials tally the final scores.

"We wanted to create something that will allow people to take a more active interest in politics but have fun at the same time," explains Matt Yarbrough, the thirty-year-old chief technical officer and spokesman for fantasyelections.com.

Yarbrough, who describes himself as a "fairly dedicated leftist," campaigned for the Green Party before his current job as an application developer for a Boulder-based technology firm. But he and the ten other people involved in this venture run the political gamut, he says. All of them work part-time on the site, balancing life online with "real jobs" -- ones they don't want to jeopardize by having their names published here. After all, politics is their real passion.

Fantasyelections.com will allow people to move beyond their own ideological beliefs and participate in politics in a more complex way, Yarbrough says. "Politics today is marketing. That's it. I wouldn't imply that the candidates are for sale, but it's an ad campaign. It's no different than Nike saying 'We're better than Reebok.'"

The fantasyelections.com crew has spent the last six months gathering data on candidates to help online players build a strategic base of good campaigners and talented fundraisers. This year, nearly 1,300 candidates are vying for 470 congressional seats. The information includes the amount of money in the candidates' coffers, their districts' voting history and news accounts profiling the candidates.

The presidential race will not be included, Yarbrough says. But it will serve as a sort of "booster club" confined to chat rooms and discussion boards on the site.

According to the user manual, players -- or consultants, as they're called in the game -- will select from a pool of candidates who have been pre-ranked based on previous elections and projections of campaign contributions. Consultants pick two Senate candidates and eight House candidates. Of those, they must choose six incumbents, one open seat and three challengers. Each league has ten players, and a random drawing determines who gets the first pick.

Participants can trade, add and drop candidates at any time. Say, for instance, your roster includes Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who, until recently, seemed a sure bet to reclaim his District 6 seat in November. But since he's publicly softened his stance on Second Amendment rights, you feel nervous about his chances for re-election in a trigger-happy district. Perhaps someone who holds Cynthia McKinney, a liberal shoe-in for Georgia's 4th Congressional District, will trade with you, but you might have to give up someone whom you consider an easy bet for a long-shot loser.

Forget whether these candidates hold views or have voting records that align with a player's personal beliefs; instead, savvy consultants must determine whether the candidate's views support the voting public's. Only by weighing factors such as public perception, money, campaign strategy, personal history and geography will a player be successful.

"Do I want to win, or do I want to fight for my beliefs?" is the question that people will have to ask themselves, Yarbrough says. "There are going to be people who draft only independents. I think that that's really where the fun will come in. These people will be the contrarians that want to get in and mix it up."

Fantasy sports leagues -- both online and off -- became popular in the early '90s as a way for armchair athletes to assign some meaning to the endless reams of statistics in the sports pages. These leagues cast fans in the role of team owner, and although they're governed by an often inscrutable set of rules, the basic outline allows everyone in the league to participate in a draft in which they select players from a roster of real athletes to create a make-believe team. Owners may trade, add and drop players during the season, getting rid of hopelessly underperforming and overrated stars for leaner and meaner up-and-comers. Winners are determined by a complex set of factors including wins and overall stats.

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