Top critical review
Teflon analysis, but no big picture
on March 20, 2016
In “The Candidate,” Samuel Popkin has attempted to write a kind of management bible for the business of presidential campaigning. Polling, strategy and even a candidate’s platform, Popkin argues, are less important than organization: how a candidate parcels out authority, how his staff manages his time and attention, and whether his campaign can respond quickly to the chaos and shifting demands of the trail.
All campaigns boil down to one of three kinds, Popkin writes. One is the “challenger” seeking to reclaim the White House for his party -- and perennially promising to “end messy politics as we know it.” (When Obama told voters in 2008 that “this campaign cannot be about me,” he was echoing Howard Dean, who had proclaimed four years earlier that “this campaign is not really about me,” and Jerry Brown, who had insisted the 1992 campaign was “much larger than me.”) Another is the “incumbent” looking for a second term, someone who last campaigned as a challenger and now must persuade voters that a Washington insider is their best choice. The third is the “successor,” usually a vice president, who must distinguish himself from the president he serves without alienating the White House staff or party constituencies still loyal to the boss.
Like any management guru, Popkin comes bearing case studies. In 2007, Hillary Clinton was a challenger who mistakenly ran as a kind of incumbent. She campaigned “as if she were a leader in exile,” Popkin writes. She entrusted both polling and strategy to a single adviser, Mark Penn, who devised a “shock and awe” campaign based on inevitability: Clinton’s endorsements, her fund-raising prowess, her experience in the Senate. But as Obama gathered strength with a message of hope and change, flaws in Clinton’s campaign organization made it difficult for her to shift gears. Penn defended inevitability, restricting access to his poll findings so that other aides couldn’t second-guess him. Rampant infighting also made it difficult to alter strategy, since any changes -- like pouring more money and staff into the Iowa caucuses later won by Obama, or emphasizing her character, as some aides favored -- meant surrendering turf.
In 1991, George H. W. Bush was the incumbent who couldn’t lose. After his years in the White House, with victory in Iraq and the end of the cold war under his belt, he considered the possible Democratic candidates self-evidently under-qualified. He believed that voters would reward him for his credentials on national defense, which had been a Republican franchise over the preceding decade, and that he could pincer any opponent on social issues like welfare and crime. But Bush suffered from a disconnect typical of incumbents: His White House staff balked at yielding turf to his campaign team. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, was arrogant and dismissive, a self-appointed “deputy president.” Politically tone-deaf, he believed voters would not punish Bush for breaking his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, and he controlled access in order to enforce his own opinions, freezing out Bush’s pollster and others when they disagreed. When the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, a tough-on-crime “New Democrat” who tapped into Americans’ economic anxieties, Bush and his team were slow to adapt. Even harder, Popkin says, is the third type of candidacy: the successor. When Al Gore ran in 2000, the country had enjoyed years of peace and prosperity. But voters are skeptical of vice presidents who claim credit for a president’s accomplishments, Popkin notes. And whereas Clinton had outfoxed Congressional Republicans by persuading voters they were extreme, Gore faced George W. Bush, who promised -- like all challengers -- an end to partisan rancor. “If Gore couldn’t get credit for peace and prosperity, and if Clinton was an albatross,” Popkin writes, “what could Gore say about the last eight years that made him the right change instead of Bush?” Gore couldn’t solve that puzzle, Popkin argues, in large part because he was pulled in different directions by his White House staff, his family and his campaign aides. Gore resented Bill Clinton for his infidelities and impeachment, empowering staff and family members who blamed “Clinton fatigue” for his lagging campaign. He overrelied on his adviser Naomi Wolf, a friend of his daughter’s. He would make snap decisions without warning his strategists. Organizational chaos begat message confusion: “You’ve never had it so good, and I’m mad as hell about it,” as the columnist Michael Kinsley described the populist turn Gore took late in the race.
Popkin is the rare political scientist who believes that campaigns really do matter -- that election outcomes are not driven mostly by economic and demographic trends over which candidates have no control. While his 1991 book “The Reasoning Voter” remains a go-to text for understanding what information voters use to pick candidates, reading “The Candidate” I found myself wondering about Popkin’s choice of examples. If infighting doomed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, for example, how did Bill Clinton win in 1996 despite vicious feuding between his Republican-minded Svengali, Dick Morris, and more liberal advisers like Harold Ickes? Did John McCain lose against Obama because his campaign was improvisational and fractured, or because Obama outspent him by more than two to one?
Another problem is that “The Candidate,” like candidates themselves, often veers off message. Popkin is a political buff, and his book comes so overloaded with anecdotes and ephemera that it’s hard to follow. Even when the material is interesting -- like the description of how Obama aides in South Carolina handed out old-fashioned campaign buttons with Obama’s picture on them, so primary voters would know he was black — it is distracting. And at times, Popkin needlessly belabors the basics of campaigning. “The candidate has to persuade skeptical voters that she is ‘one of us,’” he writes in one chapter, “that she understands their lives and shares their values.”
While Popkin has deserved fun with the short attention spans and hyperbole endemic to political reporting, “The Candidate” actually has much in common with behind-the-scenes campaign books like “Game Change,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s racy and addictive account of the 2008 race. Both are basically about the perils of infighting. Popkin’s solutions, offered at the end of “The Candidate,” may seem obvious to political executives. Don’t candidates know to hire a strong chief of staff who can be an honest broker, to keep a peer around who can tell them when they’re wrong, to assign a senior staff member to keep their family in the loop? Popkin’s book suggests an unexpected answer: If it were easy, everyone would do it.