What it takes to win the White House

A review of Samuel L. Popkin’s The Candidate

The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—And Hold—The White House | By Samuel L. Popkin | Oxford University Press | 350 pages, $27.95

Academic political science and Washington policymaking once had a close relationship: during the Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations, for example. No longer. As Karl Rove writes as a blurb on this book, most contemporary political science is comprised of “spreadsheets and algorithms” that provide little useful information to overburdened politicians and their staffers. After a stint in Washington, one political scientist said, “As an academic, you basically do retrospective analysis with more or less information and lots of time. When you’re making foreign policy, you have no time and limited information.”

Political scientist and Democratic campaign consultant Samuel Popkin attempts to reunite politics and political theory in The Candidate, out now from Oxford University Press. Despite the book’s title, Popkin asserts that a candidate’s qualities, character, or voting record have relatively little to do with whether or not he wins the American presidency. The team surrounding the would-be president is the most important variable in determining his success. “Anyone audacious enough to run must also be agile and resilient, and it is that candidate’s assembled team that determines the level of the candidate’s agility and resilience,” he writes.

“The single most important part of a successful team is a chief of staff strong enough to be an honest broker,” writes Popkin. “Weak chiefs of staff are the biggest reason campaigns flounder.” The chief of staff, when given proper authority, acts at the gatekeeper to the candidate, ensuring that those demanding his attention are acting cohesively with the rest of the team and not offering freelance advice. Candidates who receive counsel from multiple sources—family, pundits, outside analysts, and policy wonks—have trouble deciding whose advice to heed. This indecision can lead to organizational disarray and strategic incoherence. This turns out to be the boldest claim in the book.

Popkin’s first few chapters are filled with banalities. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore, we are told, “were part of a royal family, demonstrating the virtues and values of a leader; a leader of a start-up company, developing and refining his vision of the future; and a CEO overseeing a large organization.” A successful campaigner must possess all these skills, he says. Much of the book is comprised of insipid analysis of this sort: Candidates begin by creating a public identity. They need to develop a vision of the future. They have to plan for chaos.

Popkin highlights the difficulties facing vice-presidents who decide to pursue the top job: they must differentiate themselves from their predecessor while not divorcing themselves from the administration in which they served. If this isn’t quite obvious, it is hardly brilliant. He concentrates on the challenges facing Gore and Bush, writing separate chapters on their failed campaigns. The reader is left from them only with instances of the candidates being unable to form a harmonious team.

The Candidate is most interesting when Popkin breaks down the flaws and merits of specific presidential campaigns. Hillary Clinton in 2008, George Bush in 1992, Al Gore in 2000—all are mined for lessons in failure. The only thing these campaigns had in common, Popkin believes, was disarray among the teams. If Clinton and Gore’s teams had the disciplined camaraderie with which Barack Obama and George W. Bush were surrounded, their candidates might have emerged victorious. Clinton, he suggests, was too loyal to longtime strategist Mark Penn to form an effective team, while Gore was unable to decide whom to listen to, or how to differentiate himself from the president he served for eight years. Clinton, Popkin writes, prized loyalty above all else, and so gave far too much power to longtime pollster/strategist Mark Penn, and refused to listen to those who gave her unwelcome news.

Surely there is something to the conclusion that teams matter, but its value is overstated. Popkin all but completely ignores the general outlook of the country at the time of these campaigns. Does anyone imagine that campaign disorganization was the primary reason why John McCain failed to best Obama in 2008? The state of the economy and the deep unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration would have hobbled any Republican candidate, no matter how cohesive and disciplined his campaign. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory over Republican Bob Dole likely had more to do with his passage of welfare reform and the economy’s strength than his campaign team’s unity. Most political scientists believe unemployment levels strongly correlate with presidential success—Popkin simply ignores the strong evidence supporting this proposition, instead taking the narrowest view of politics possible.

Occasionally, The Candidate’s platitudes manage to contradict themselves, even on consecutive pages. On page 146, we are told that “All over again, incumbents must show that they have not been captured by Washington and lost touch with the ordinary people.” On page 147, we now learn that “Unlike challengers, presidents do not have to show a common touch and persuade people they can represent them.” Well, which is it?

Popkin also proves surprisingly gullible to the advice emerging from the usual suspects touted as brilliant campaign strategists. He favorably quotes Karl Rove as saying that a candidate should “Try to figure out how to get your opponent to attack you, because you are always stronger on the counterattack.” Now, Rove is known for many things, but a reluctance to viciously attack his candidate’s opponents isn’t among them. During the 2000 Republican primaries, Bush’s team—led by Rove—ran blatantly racist advertisements slurring John McCain’s adopted daughter. That same year, Rove also initiated a dishonest push poll in North Carolina, phoning voters to misrepresent McCain’s positions. This guy is taken as a paragon of honest campaigning?

Popkin’s last chapter is devoted to an unconvincing defense of the exhausting American campaign season. He presents a false choice between the current 18-month campaign process and the prospect of party leaders choosing candidates in some cloistered-off back room. Many other democracies’ campaign seasons are shorter than America’s, however, and voters in those countries do not suffer for it. A president generally spends half of his first term campaigning for reelection in one way or another, which is a terrible waste of energy and resources. “The process is long enough and complicated enough to force candidates to show more of their capabilities,” Popkin writes. Yes, they show more of their campaigning capabilities. But as we learned from George W. Bush’s time in office, campaigning successfully is not the same thing as governing effectively. If only The Candidate had the wisdom to see the difference.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. Tags: , , , , ,