An Exchange With Samuel Popkin on the Obama-Romney Showdown

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In my big story on "Obama, Explained" two months ago I quoted Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at UCSD (and longtime friend), on what the Obama re-election campaign could learn from Harry Truman's strategy in 1948. Popkin's responses included references to the famous (and invaluable) "Rowe memo," sent by James H. Rowe Jr to Truman shortly after Republicans gained control of the Congress in the 1946 mid-term elections.

Candidate.jpgThat memo is one of many gems included in Popkin's new book The Candidate: What It Takes to Win and Hold the White House. (Another quasi-gem: a borderline-embarrassing episode involving me, during the 1976 Carter campaign, in the book's early pages. You'll have to find it for yourself.) The book concerns the modern history of the process that will flood the airwaves and internets over the next six months: a first-term president's attempt to present himself anew to the public, and a challenger's attempt to say the incumbent doesn't deserve another chance.

Over the years I've turned to Popkin for guidance about both the substance and the mechanics of politics. His earlier book The Reasoning Voter argued that for all the nuttiness, irrelevancies, and vituperation of political campaigns, they are surprisingly effective in conveying the policy information that voters care about. He's agreed to several rounds of online Q-and-A to apply the lessons of his new book to the Romney-Obama showdown we're about to live through.

Here is my opening question, followed by his reply. More in the week ahead.
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Dear Sam:

Thanks very much for agreeing to this online exchange. Over the years, I've been one of many journalists to come to you for insights about aspects of the political campaign that we reporters were missing. Now with your new book, you're threatening to cut out the middleman and let readers hear from you directly.

I suppose I should object, on guild-protection principles. Instead I'll just ask you a few questions arising from your book and your observation of politics over the years.

I'll start with a simple but open-ended one. It is: what is the conventional wisdom missing, when it comes to this year's presidential race?

With some differences in detail and emphasis, I think the following points are a basic summary of media-world conventional wisdom six months before election day.

  • It's all about the economy, and unless the unemployment rate gets much worse, Obama has an edge;
  • Obama is vulnerable, but you can't beat something with nothing (or, in the alternative phrasing, an election is a choice, not a referendum), and Mitt Romney is just plain bad at politics -- and unlike the president, he is "underwater" in personal ratings, more "disliked" than "liked";
  • On the other hand, you should never underestimate how much better (and more ruthless) the post-Rove Republicans are at campaigning than modern Democrats are, nor how much more SuperPac money they will have in their hands;
  • On this same other hand, you can never underestimate the residual suspicion about our first non-white President, plus the diminished enthusiasm of young voters who were so important to Obama's success last time;
  • But back on the original hand, through the primaries the Republican party seemed willfully to be antagonizing: women, blacks, Latinos, the young, LBGTs, and the highly educated, leaving themselves with a shrunken base for the general election;
  • And as a result, who knows what's going to happen!

So for the opening question I ask:

What drives you crazy when you hear DC-based conventional-wisdom pundits opine about how the next six months will shape up?

What do you know that you think the rest of us should pay attention to?

I look forward to your answers.
[with bonus question below]
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Samuel Popkin's reply.

Dear Jim;

Thanks for giving me the chance to join in on your election discussions.  These questions are a great way to start thinking about this election -- for me, after hunkering down to revisit the presidential elections since 1948 and look at them from the point of view of a candidate.
  
I don't think you should worry about my book undercutting reporters and opinionators.  My goal is to draw more people into the complexity of campaigns and help them appreciate the planning and preparation necessary to get to the White House or stay there.  There is a lot of substance too easily missed by even your readers, and they should appreciate you and your colleagues more if and when they read me.  Looking back, the top reporters got it more right at the time than people like me in the campaigns dared acknowledge.  And  you got it right first on Jimmy Carter, to say nothing of Iraq or most of the SOTUs

Two things that drive me most crazy are over-simplifying "the economy" and missing the critical differences between incumbent campaigns and challenger campaigns.

The Economy
Economics always matters, but the specific economic issues that matter, and the ways voters react have been in flux since the 70s.   Voters don't vote on their actual economic welfare. They vote on their opinions about their welfare, which in turn  partly means their expectations about the future.

From 1948 until 1980 the two economic issues dominating presidential elections were unemployment and inflation.  Now the role of government in the economy, the value of immigration, the role of foreign trade, and the fight over  entitlements are all seen as economic issues.

Before the 1980s, creation of jobs was a domestic issue; now, it is always  international as well.  There are always more people who see the jobs lost through trade than who see the jobs gained from trade.   Presidents always need to show they are not letting foreigners take advantage of us.

All of today's fears about China turning us into a nation of hamburger flippers were fears earlier about Japan. The famous trip to Japan in 1991 that ended with President G H W Bush getting sick in the Japanese prime minister's lap was an attempt to show that foreign trade was a two-way street.  Bush was trying to get American cars into Japan and Americans laughed at the idea that the country that produced Toyota and Lexus would want a K-car. Johnny Carson's line after the infamous dinner was:  "If you had to look at Lee Iacocca while eating raw fish, you'd barf too."
 
The fight over Obamacare reflects the deep worry of middle-aged employed workers who are trying to hold on until retirement, and whose major concern is making sure that their deserved entitlements, Medicare and SSI, last their lifetime. I think of them as the "not in my lifetime" equivalent of the old "Not in my backyard" opponents of building refineries or nuclear power plants in their area.

The Tea Party is part of a movement that began in over twenty years ago out of disgust with both parties. In 1989, when Ralph Nader encouraged right wing radio hosts to attack a congressional pay raises and the first tea bag uprising began, there was a growing constituency of employed, middle-aged, educated voters whose main concern was the future of  social security and Medicare.  Until I revisited these campaigns for my book I had not realized that Ross Perot was already becoming a household name cited approvingly in Washington and New York as a font of common sense wisdom.
 
Incumbents and Challengers
What gets someone to the White House will never keep them there.  Every election, reporters will ask me whether the incumbent can do again what he did four years earlier. Explaining why they can't, and why the do-it-again idea is a fallacy, really motivated the book. For instance:
  
- A challenger's presidential campaign can quickly adjust and adapt to shifting seas like a speedboat. An incumbent's campaign (which is what a successful challenger becomes, four years later) behaves more like a battleship, maneuvering slowly and making very large waves. 

- When I examined how voters talk about candidates, my graduate student Matt Childers and I saw that there is always a difference between how challengers and incumbents are viewed.  People focus on the character of the challenger and the results of the incumbent.

- All challengers talk about hope and change.  After Obama won,  George W Bush wryly noted that change is a "very effective slogan."  It sounded as if, as an incumbent, he now understood it was "just a slogan."  Challengers always want you to punish incumbents for unfulfilled promises.  Since no president has ever done more than he promised, the incumbent's glass is always at most half full.  

- The famous 1992 film The War Room is still the model for challengers, and their staffs all study it. It is never that simple for an incumbent. The core of the campaign organization has to coordinate with the White House and the Cabinet.  For challengers talk is cheap, but everything an incumbent says or does has lasting consequences.   Mitt Romney can make statements about Iran or China that would create an immediate crisis if the president made them.

-- Sam
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Bonus round!   
Just before getting Sam Popkin's response, above, I had followed a lot of online chatter about the Obama campaign's "we got Osama!" ad on the first anniversary of the successful raid. Plus the controversy over Mitt Romney's odious "even Jimmy Carter" remark. So I threw in a query about that:

"Sam -- what about the bin Laden ad? One view is that everyone knows that Barack Obama got Osama bin Laden, and it cheapens the achievement to gloat about that fact. The other view is, (a) Bush-Cheney, or McCain-Palin, would have gloated to the skies if they'd been in the same position, and (b) if the other side is complaining about your 'politicizing' a huge success, that's a good kind of problem to have.

By your model, what's the right way to think about this?"

His reply:

"This is an important question.  Publicly talking about the president's role in taking out Bin Laden puts it on the table and forces conversation. When Mitt was trying to distinguish himself from John "I'll follow him to the gates of hell" McCain, he said "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." If Mitt changed his mind, he should say so and explain when he changed his mind and why.
 
"It is a tough ad and I understand why Atlantic readers would be upset.  But if Obama hadn't done the raid he would now be getting pilloried for not taking on Pakistan and taking out the symbolic leader of Al Qaeda."

More shortly.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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