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November 04, 2013 1:25 PM The 2012 Campaign Books

By Ed Kilgore

When I took on the assignment from WaMo to write about the first wave of 2012 campaign books, the latest from Halperin and Heilemann, Double Down, hadn’t been released or even pre-released. I did note in my review of books by Jonathan Alter (The Center Holds), Dan Balz (Collision 2012), and the poll sci stars Sides and Vavreck (The Gamble), that campaign retrospectives seemed to be in full retreat from the anecdotal sensationalism of Halperin and Heilemann’s book on 2008, Game Change. From the Double Down (subtitled Game Change 2012, which I fear suggests some sort of franchise like Teddy White’s The Making of the President series) excerpts published so far, I doubt this latest bag of crumbs from the campaign trail is going to be made into a HBO movie. But before the hype over it consumes the topic, it’s worth a look at the non-game-changey books already out.

I found both Alter’s and Balz’s books to be serious if sturdily conventional campaign accounts with different points of view and different interpretations of the wellsprings of the campaign and its outcome. Alter is particularly good at relating the contest to the broader struggle between center-left liberalism and a radicalized GOP that preceded and succeeded the election. And Balz is particularly good at chronicling the GOP primaries; the unequal fight over use and analysis of data by the two campaigns, and the sense of unreality and denial that captured Team Mitt just prior to Election Day.

But without a doubt the most provocative book is The Gamble by Sides and Vavreck, which I semi-seriously suggested should have been subtitled: Nothing To See Here, Folks. Anyone familiar with the standard political science critique of political journalism won’t be surprised with the book’s systematic efforts to challenge various “narratives” about 2012, or its basic claim that campaign events, messages, ads and controversies essentially canceled each other out and produced an election controlled by “the fundamentals,” particularly the power of incumbency and a gradually improving economy.

But Sides and Vavreck go further in ways that are disturbing to anyone hoping against hope that Republicans will learn lessons from their defeat:

Sides and Vavreck spend a good deal of time arguing that to win in 2016 Republicans need to do little more than run a competent campaign and hope the economy continues to struggle. In denying that there is any positive or negative ideological “mandate” from 2012, they place great emphasis on YouGov.com polling showing that voters perceived Romney as being closer to their own ideology than Obama. (That’s not to say, of course, that these perceptions were accurate.) They also shoot down arguments that GOP positioning on health care, immigration (even among Latinos), or abortion (even among women) had a material net impact on voters. Other social scientists may busily work to undermine these conclusions, along with those that consider Obama’s field operation as having at best a limited impact on the popular vote results (though possibly swinging two very important battleground states, Florida and Ohio). But advocates of any game-change theory must deal with the underlying reality that Obama’s 2012 performance among most demographic groups was very close to his performance in 2008, with a relatively uniform downward swing arguably attributable to fundamentals. If these allegiances hold, the demographic winds are blowing in a direction favorable to Democrats. But they don’t move mountains in four-year intervals.

I encourage you to read the whole review, and yes, all three books—certainly before investing in Double Down.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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