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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