Durell Cooper performs a Democratic candidate. Photo by Nora Lambert.

What makes a political candidate stand out in a saturated field? Is it their message or their mannerisms? Those questions, among others, have inspired a new game from NYU Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Lab.

VPL’s director Joe Salvatore and associate director Keith Huff wanted to know if online users could identify eight Democratic hopefuls when their message was no longer so obviously tied to their identity. Enter: Guess the Candidate.

The new game, made in conjunction with NYU-TV, presents users with eight videos featuring actors trained in verbatim performance who play current candidates Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg, as well as former candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

The actors deliver a one-minute policy statement on education pulled from the real candidates while referencing their speech and gestural patterns. Users are asked to guess which candidate each actor portrays, and then choose how they made their decision: Was it the actor’s speech? Gestures? Or the message itself?


Guess the Candidate grew out of past VPL projects that have examined gender-flipped performances of the Kavanaugh Hearings and a Trump-Clinton debate. Based on those outcomes, Salvatore and Huff became especially curious about ways to apply the acting method to the contemporary political moment.

“We created Guess the Candidate because we wanted to engage users in an enjoyable experience that would provide them with insight about some of the candidates,” says Salvatore. “We focused on education as the topic because we believe it’s an important policy position for the electorate to consider as they’re thinking about electability and the future of the country’s education system.”

The hope is to get users to think more introspectively about who they like and why. “If we can get one person to stop and consider whether they are supporting a candidate because of their style or because of their substance—that would be a victory,” says Huff. “The important factor here is that we’re not trying to change anyone’s mind about their candidate of choice; we’re working to get users to understand and reflect upon why they’re making the choices that they are and what are the factors that are contributing to that process.”

Can you guess the candidate?

Play the game.