Book Review: The Candidate: What it Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House by Samuel L. Popkin

There’s a new political Bible out — a political book that like the religious Bible is crammed with wisdom and rules that if followed offer a better (political) life.

And you can bet your Granny’s seat at a slot machine that both Camp Obama and Camp Romney are studying it. But are they following it?

What more can you say about the credibility, solidness and critical information in political scientist Samuel Popkin’s “The Candidate: What it Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House” that on the back cover it has blurbs hailing it written by both Democrat George Stephanopoulos and Republican Karl Rove?

What makes the book so solid is that Popkin has not just studied what makes a winning (and losing) campaign, but he has worked in several key campaigns. He gives you the theory but never suggests that demographics make a winning campaign. In fact, he argues the campaign itself is important to a winning campaign. A simple truism — but one campaigns ignore to their peril.

It’s a book crammed with specific details that will give you “AHA!” moments about why Hillary Clinton lost (poor organization and almost running as an incumbent when she started) why Al Gore lost (micromaging which negated his staffing, distancing himself from Bill Clinton, being tugged in too many directions by staff, family, and even himself), why John Kerry lost, why George W. Bush won, why George H.W. Bush lost, and the ingredients that almost led to the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination eluding Barack Obama – and why Obama won.

If you boil it all away then you get a key factor that Poplin has written about in his book as well as articulated whenever he has been on talk radio and on cable shows (he is a great, blunt-spoken guest, by the way who talks as well in sound bytes as he writes — and clearly a great professor): it boils down to a campaign’s organization, capability — and ability and agility to respond properly and swiftly when it has to catch a monkey wrench thrown its way. Winning could hinge on one quality: adaptability. The blurb writen by him on the Amazon page is the best one:

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.

Don’t expect a dry treatise on political science. Poplin’s writing style is as lively as a top political columnist which is why this book is so accessible — and valuable.

Using specific examples, Poplin categorizes campaigns into The Challenger trying to boot out the other party’s candidate — someone who’ll talk about bringing change and not doing politics as usual; The Incumbent who must now defend his record but also lay out a vision for a second term if he wants to be re-elected; and The Successor, the Vice President who walks a political tightrope, running in his own right but trying not to get his boss the President’s nose out of joint.

It provides a useful framework to assess how the campaigns are going in 2012.

In June, when it became clear Republican Mitt Romney would get the Republican nomination and the party was starting united around him, there were a few weeks when it truly appeared as if Obama’s caaign fell short of many of the characteristics Poplin detailed about winning incumbent campaigns. Obama didn’t seem to be defining what he planned to do in his second term at all and how different it would be from what the GOP proposed. And, most importantly, his campaign organization seemed a beat behind.

But since the conventions that has flipped around: in so many ways Mitt Romney is now at odds with a typical winning campaign by The Challenger. In particular (a)the message of specifically what Romney is offering is muddled (b)his campaign organization is being called inept, even by Republican conservatives. And you see:

–Poor organization. Allowing Clint Eastwood to muddle what should have been a professional re-launch of Romney and the imagery surrounding him.
–Not nimble enough. Romney’s widely-panned response to the events in Libya-Egypt showed a campaign that was seemingly as flat-footed as its candidate seemed to be ham-handed.
–Poor staffing. Romney’s response to the 47% secret video was to first stand by his comments with some minor adjustments. Now he’s running away from them. Good staffing would have sought to deal with the crisis swiftly and effectively from the moment it broke.

These days, it seems like Obama’s campaign is the campaign moving like a speedboat and Romney’s like an oceanliner. Indeed; some have likened Romney’s campaign to the Titanic.

Even so, Poplin stresses that all campaigns are different. But here are some more tidbits. A few quotes:

On an incument President’s task:

A president’s message box is the polar opposite of the message box he used as challenger. The president will argue taht the country should not “change horses in the middle of the stream,” as FDR said, because he is safe and the challenger is risky…

The terrain will also be different in a reelection because the focus of voters will be on whether the incumbent’s policies are working — and, if not, why they should be continued.”

Plus this interesting quote:

“All over again, incumbents must show that they have not been captured by Washington and lost touch with the ordinary people.”

The irony in 2012: Romney is struggling to show that he has not lost touch with ordinatry people.

And, as Popkin notes, many things happen during campaigns swiftly — so all of the above could be changed by future events.

Meanwhile, Popkin has one paragraph that must be highlighted since it is almost word for word what I have told people for many years.

I was a huge fan of Rush Limbaugh when he first went national since he seemed to go after everyone, including then-President George H.W. Bush. For years I’ve gotten Limbaugh fans angry when I tell them that AS SOON as Bush invited Limbaugh over to the White House to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom Limbaugh changed and became the quintessential party man – and his power grew from there. Popkin writes:

..Bush — with help from Roger Ailes — had brought the single most powerful radio talk-show personality in America, Rush Limbaugh, into the fold. Although conservative, Limbaugh had not been a wholehearted supporter of any candidate, nor had he ever invited — or needed — guests on his show. Roger Ailes courted Limbaugh and brought him to the White House for dinner with Bush and an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroomm. The charm worked; Limbaugh was a full-fledged Bush supporter from June on, welcoming Bush and Quayle on his show that fall.

Yet another reason to read The Candidate is to watch Popkin dismember some longtime political cliches.

For instance, he makes the case that Harry Truman did NOT win because he was a better speaker or campaigner than Thomas E. Dewey, or that Dewey was boring and a lousy candidate. In fact, Popkin shows, Truman used the powers of incumbancy to set political traps for Republicans that forced Republicans to define themselves.

Seen in that light, you could argue that Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, his immigration policy change order, and even the gift of the Supreme Court upholding health care reform were all factors that sharpened the differences in the public mind between the White House candidates offered by both parties.

Of course, as you read this, the jury is still out on which party’s position they like better.

But you can have confidence that operatives from both parties are reading and underlining Poplin’s book.

Which one will follow a winning formula better?

Or will one of them create a new formula future generations of political scientists will study?

The Candidate is REQUIRED READING for political junkies, bloggers, partisans of any party, journalists, students — anyone who wants to read a lively but rock-solid content-packed book on what it takes to win and keep the White House.

On a TMV scale of 10 stars we give it TEN stars.

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