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A rehash of familiar material with unclear "value added"
on November 8, 2010
If you're the kind of person who loves poring over a table showing how public answers to a particular survey question change from week to week over a campaign, I'm sure you'll find this book fascinating. I'm not one of those people, and I'm writing this review for other people who aren't.
If you followed the news during the campaign, you've already seen the basic story line and ideas here. The authors recap the election and the main campaign themes of both sides such as "McSame" and "Not Ready to Lead." Much of their data tries to track which themes work, which ones don't, and how they influenced public opinion over time. There isn't anything approaching a theory here, which means there isn't any real causal explanation of anything that happened. The narrative is driven by data, debates, speeches, gaffes, and other campaign events.
The main analytical structure of the narrative divides events into five periods. In the first, McCain gains ground by emphasizing petroleum development as a response to high gas prices. The second is dominated by the vice presidential selections. The third is dominated by the economic collapse, which the authors date to September. The fourth is McCain's last surge, followed by the final week in which voters seem reassured by Obama.
They want to argue that campaign messages make a significant difference in the outcome of the election. Certainly these messages seem to influence the day-to-day ups and downs, but it's not obvious that they affect the outcome: voters reject incumbents at time of economic collapse. It's also not clear what the counterfactual is (what if candidates had sent different messages) or what explains the messages. A good explanation of the messages might, or might not, make them entirely endogenous and thus epiphenomenal. The authors are not well-positioned to address these causal issues, especially in the absence of either strong theory or an empirical research design that can control for selection bias and endogeneity. If this paragraph makes sense to you, then the book will probably only frustrate you.
Overall, I'm hard-pressed to see why anyone would want to read this book. The kind of public opinion junkies who would be most interested will already know what's here. There's no novel argument or theory that would compel these junkies to pick up the book, though its wealth of tables and data would provide a useful reference to have on the shelf. For the general reader, the book is too focused on weekly minutiae to remain interesting, though it might have worked at about one-third the length.