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The Candidate: What it Takes to Win - and Hold - the White House by [Popkin, Samuel L.]
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Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History by John Dickerson
John Dickerson | Learn more
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Editorial Reviews Review Five Pivotal Moments from Incumbent Campaigns Additional Content from the Author
Samuel L. Popkin, Author

While a challenger's presidential campaign can quickly adjust and adapt to shifting winds like a speedboat, an incumbent's campaign behaves more like a battleship, maneuvering slowly and making very large waves. Instead of a core inner circle calling the shots from a "war room," a president's re-election team must coordinate with White House staffers and the President's cabinet--all of whom have agendas difficult to change, control or coordinate.

The pivotal moments in incumbents' campaigns are policy moves that take months to plan before they're unveiled--and just as long to see their effects. Challengers offer talk about what they believe in, but the five classic moves outlined here show presidents making a credible commitment by paying a price.

Congress Overrides Truman's Veto of Taft-Hartley
Harry Truman's prospects for re-election in 1948 looked bleak. It didn’t help that unions viewed him as the "number one strike breaker" after he interceded in the railroad and mining strikes crippling the country. But when the Taft-Hartley Act came to his desk for his signature in 1947, Truman saw the opportunity to resurrect his candidacy. By vetoing Taft-Hartley--which outlawed secondary strikes, mass picketing and closed shops--Truman positioned himself as the last, best hope of the unions. The Republican-controlled Congress, which overrode the veto with support from nearly half of all Democrats, became an easy, visible enemy for Truman... and the unions. Without the financial support from unions in 1948, he would not have captured the normally Republican farm vote and countered Thomas E. Dewey's urban appeal.

Nixon Visits China
To this day, when Democratic strategists think about dramatic moves a president can make, they ask each other to finish the sentence "If only Nixon could visit China, only a Democrat could..." Nixon's surprising visit to China in February, 1972, was a key part of his re-election strategy. Senator George McGovern's pledge to end the Vietnam War and bring U.S. troops home immediately made Nixon look like an unadulterated hawk by contrast. The trip to China--a historic attempt to restore the relations with the Communist nation--made the rest of Nixon's foreign policy claims credible. It paved the way for Nixon to campaign on the goal of "Peace with Honor," centered on a commitment to a more principled end to the war.

Carter Fails to Rescue Iranian Hostages
Carter is an important reminder that an incumbent's bold moves can backfire badly. With the Iran Hostage Crisis entering its fifth month--and nothing but failed negotiations to show for his efforts--Carter decided to try to rescue the 55 Americans held in Tehran's American Embassy. The rescue attempt, dubbed "Operation Eagle Claw," was aborted when two defective helicopters forced the mission to turn back. Eight U.S. servicemen died, and Carter's administration suffered a very public failure. "If we had it to do all over again," Carter’s media advisor Gerald Rafshoon said after the election, "we would take the 30 million dollars we spent in the campaign and get three more helicopters for the Iran rescue mission."

George H. W. Bush Takes Lee Iacocca to Japan
Although Bush's January, 1992, state visit to Japan is now remembered for the vomit the jet-lagged president deposited in the prime minister's lap, the trip was already a debacle before that incident. Trying to prove that his foreign policy focus could pivot from security to jobs, Bush brought Big Three auto executives along to persuade Japan to import more American cars. The failing CEOs' salaries became the talk of the country; Lee Iacocca, Chrysler's CEO, was paid more than all the Japanese auto companies' CEOs together. The Wall Street Journal was so disgusted, they urged Bush to "Give Iacocca to Japan." And the day after the president's stomach problems, Johnny Carson joked, "If you had to look at Lee Iacocca while eating raw fish, you'd barf too."

Clinton Outmaneuvers Newt Gingrich
In December 1995, the Republican controlled house and senate sent Bill Clinton a budget that would let Medicare, in Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's words, "wither on the vine." With the same pen LBJ used to sign Medicare into law, Bill Clinton vetoed their budget, forcing a government shutdown. After their brinkmanship backfired, the freshman congressman, George Stephanopoulos wrote, developed a "kamikaze spirit" and "became Newt's Frankenstein monster--and my best friends."

Infuriated by losing the budget battle, Republicans then sent Clinton two welfare reform bills so stringent that he had no choice but to veto them. Though former Senator Bob Dole, now the Republican presidential candidate, begged Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott not to send him something he could sign, Senate Republicans were now worried about their reelection prospects. A compromise bill went through and Clinton signed it in August, 1996. By restoring Clinton's centrist credentials, the Republican senate had sunk the Dole campaign. Said Dole strategist Tony Fabrizio, "they aimed the torpedoes at the hull and then started throwing water at it."

--Samuel L. Popkin


"Sam Popkin is a leading political scientist and someone who has worked inside presidential campaigns over many years. He brings the discipline of an academic and the eye of a practitioner to the question of what makes some candidates successful and other not." --Dan Balz, The Washington Post

"No one I know has more closely studied the link between the minds of voters and the machinery of Presidential campaigns than Sam Popkin. He's a scholar who has worked in War Rooms. A strategist who knows his history. In The Candidate, Professor Popkin teaches us what he's learned--the surprising secrets that separate winning campaigns from the ones that crash and burn." --George Stephanopoulos, Anchor and Chief Political Correspondent, ABC News

"The Candidate offers a deep dive into Presidential politics. Popkin tells us why so many 'inevitable' candidates fail, why incumbency can be as much a burden as a blessing, and why the presidency is often won or lost behind the scenes. Informed, opinionated, and smart. Must reading in 2012 and beyond." --Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge

"Samuel L. Popkin has written a ground-breaking book, making use of his skills as a political scientist, his extensive experience in campaigns, and his prodigious archival research to produce a gold-plated analysis of presidential elections. His book, The Candidate: What it Takes to Win--and Hold--the White House, is not just a crucial document for campaign strategists, political reporters, and academics; it is a great read for members of the general public who will find it enlightening, refreshing, and a new source for understanding the world of high-powered politics." --Thomas Edsall, author of The Age of Austerity

"Popkin is that rare academic who can write a fast-moving, punchy book that rescues political science from spreadsheets and algorithms and thereby makes it interesting and captivating. The Candidate is argumentative, opinionated, provocative and a great read for any political junkie or activist."--Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush

"[A] valuable aspect of The Candidate is [Popkin's] insistence that what matters above all else is the team, and especially the immediate supervisor of that team, the chief of staff...convincing." --Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books

"The Candidate is an insider romp through American politics -- and a guide to the presidential elections of 2012." -- The Globe and Mail

"All political junkies should have this book next to the TV remote so they can watch Popkin's ideas play out in real time during this campaign season and the general election. Too bad for the GOP candidates that they can't read this book until May. Highly recommended." --Library Journal

"Sam Popkin is a rare breed-an accomplished academic and practitioner, who understands politics from outside and in. In The Candidate, Popkin shares his keen insights into campaigns, why they win, and why they don't. It's must reading for any student of the game."--David Axelrod

Featured in Survival: Global Politics & Strategy

Product Details

  • File Size: 1597 KB
  • Print Length: 357 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 1, 2012)
  • Publication Date: May 1, 2012
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0076LTEP8
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joel Avrunin TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In an election year, everyone wants to have insight into which candidate is likely to succeed so they can be the one to predict the election. Invariably, every year pundits of all political stripes make predictions before the election, and when proven wrong afterwards, proclaim that the results were "obvious". Popkin's book serves this role from his insightful position as an adviser to Carter, McGovern, Clinton, and Gore. Despite the fact he is obviously a Democrat, the book is not a political analysis of one party versus another but rather a discussion on the nature of the political process itself.

In my mind, Popkin does not really tell you what it takes to win the White House, but more what it takes to lose the White House. To borrow a phrase from Anna Karenina, successful campaigns are all alike; every failed campaign fails in its own way. Through examining the failed campaigns of Carter, George HW Bush, Gore, and Hillary Clinton, he finds that each had their own failings and reason that they were not successful campaigners. Popkin leads us to his conclusion that should be eminently obvious - we tend to vote for the person who is the best campaigner, not the person we think will govern the best. Hillary was obviously infinitely more qualified than a freshman senator without any accomplishments of his own, but she was a worse campaigner as Popkin explains in intricate detail.

While the book is a good history, it fails in the title to explain exactly what it takes to "win and hold" the White House. It's an election year, yet I cannot look at either the Obama or Romney campaigns and proclaim I know how it will end based on Popkin's insights.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The author analyzes campaigns for president - winners and losers - in the twentieth century. The author didn't just report, but provided an analysis of what contributed to success. He presents the nitty gritty of a candidate's day - grueling! for a few candidates.

What makes the book work is the glimpses behind the scenes. I loved the story about Jackie Kennedy saying it's ironic that people were concerned about Kennedy's religion because "he's such a poor Catholic."

In particular, the author shows how much planning goes into campaign - as well as how little control the candidate has over people and events. As he points out, candidates have to delegate to people they don't know. They have to trust their teams because they can't do everything. Sadly, Hilary Clinton got some really bad advice: Popkin presents several tidbits that make her seem far more human than her image.

Ultimately, Popkin says, candidates who manage their teams become winners. He cites Hilary Clinton's micromanagement in contrast to Barack Obama's bottom-up strategy. Obama fine-tuned his campaign as he crossed the country to win against Hilary.

Ultimately, Popkin concludes, it's a good system. He believes that campaigns serve as a test for office.

I'm not someone who's into politics, and I think the book is targeted to serious political observers. So I thought there was a little more detail than was necessary. The book is organized thematically, rather than by campaign, so at times it was a little hard to follow.

The coverage of issues was comprehensive. There might be a little more about the importance of appearance. It seems that candidates are judged on things that wouldn't have mattered in earlier times, such as looks and ability to blend in.
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Format: Hardcover
Another political winner that is objective and not partisan.

I can't get enough of these books that explain politics without pandering, name-calling or are extremely biased.

Samuel Popkin takes us through the definitions of U.S. President candidates and how the winners win while the supposed winner loses. You won't get the party-line or the typical, "here's how that scumbag tricked us" lines you expect in political books.

The first part is abstract in just the terms while sporadically bringing in real-life examples of past candidates. He explains the different types of campaigns a candidate can run. There are only so many to choose: Challenger, Incumbant. Experience/Stability, Outsider/Reformer It's the latter part of the book that is truly excellent.

Popkin explores President George H.W. Bush's messed up re-election candidacy, Hillary Clinton's micromanaged "inevitable" campaign, and Al Gore's complete meltdown.

You'll read how George W. Bush was able to beat the successor during a time of peace and wealth; how Rudy Giuliani was the winner in all the polls until he actually started running and how a number of other candidates just could not connect, or hold on to their mojo. You'll even get to see how President Obama used the new media and bottom-up mentality to throw off Hillary Clinton's dreamteam.

In the end, Popkin points to Ronald Reagan in order to teach future candidates how to handle miscues, mistakes and misfires.

A fantastic read during this Presidential cycle.
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