Learning from 2012

So, I figured I would check in on my blog at least once this semester. I just finished the book I have been reading on my nightstand, “The Gamble,” by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. This book is about the 2012 presidential election and was recommended to me by my advisor as it’s a social scientific analysis presented as a narrative. “The Gamble” is called this for two reasons: campaigns make gambles, and the authors and publishers gambled in how this book was developed. The gamble was creating a book that is a blend of academic and popular writing, and to me, I believe the gamble paid off. If you are interested in learning more about presidential elections, you should check out this book, but be prepared for some charts and graphs. “The Gamble” will be worth your time and will further your understanding of presidential elections and the events, trends, and media coverage that shape them.


This book was a political science analysis of the 2012 presidential election from the GOP primary up to the post-election punditry prognoses. There were several key takeaways that I need to record on my blog. First, presidential elections with incumbent candidates are largely a referendum on the overall fundamentals on the economy more than attitudes toward the president. A chart in the early part of the book vividly reveals how economic growth correlates with re-election success, as the lowest mark was for 1980, Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid. Throughout the book, Sides and Vavreck illustrate how the fundamentals of the economy and general voter attitudes have more to do with who is elected than what candidates say or do. Another key takeaway from this book is a notion of a zero-sum game of tug-of-war. Romney and Obama spent an inordinate amount of money on advertisements and messaging in the 2012 campaign and the end result was that they canceled each other out. Sides and Vavreck argue that this canceling out should not be viewed as wasting money because if one side were to stop pushing advertisements or vigorously campaigning then the other would soon benefit. A third takeaway, and the one that the authors seemed to talk about the most when promoting their book, is that there are not really “game changers” in a general election.

romney obamaThroughout the book, there are examples of proclamations from journalists and strategists that certain events such as Romney’s 47% video or Obama’s “You didn’t build that” or even Hurricane Sandy were “game-changers,” but as Sides and Vavreck argue and back up with data, these events did not really affect the overall fundamentals of a national general election. Events such as the conventions and debates did have an impact but ultimately did not change the predicted outcome of the election. Sides and Vavreck do talk about how the debates made the election closer and benefited Romney but also note that the Denver debate simply led to a more focused strategy from the Obama campaign for the second and third debates. The main effect from events like the debates or the party conventions were that they really just made people more likely to vote for the candidate they already would have voted for.

Toward the end of the book there were some really interesting analyses of different elements that people have argued were deciding factors. For instance, Sides and Vavreck analyze voter attitudes on race and their opinion of Pres. Obama, as well as attitudes toward Mormonism and then Romney, and found that these were not substantial factors that could have changed the outcome of the election. Favorability and likability were also not found to have a major impact on the outcome. I walked away from this book with a much deeper macro-level understanding of the trends that do impact the outcomes of presidential elections. Essentially, you can analyze the economic data along with the national and swing-state polls and make a pretty accurate prediction of what is going to happen and who is going to win. Next time you read something from a columnist or hear a pundit on cable TV talking about “momentum” or “gut feelings” you should close that tab or turn off the TV and go look at some polls and economic data.

I have to write a lot for school so I don’t really feel like writing an in-depth review of this book, but I will post a link to its website and encourage you to check it out. Perhaps later over Christmas break I will add more to this post, but the main point I had to write when I visited WordPress today is that this book should be required reading for journalists who cover presidential elections. Political scientists and political communication scholars (heheh, like me) are keeping track of what journalists are saying and you never know what fragment of your op-ed might end up in a journal or book. Don’t chase a narrative that doesn’t objectively exist. Romney’s momentum never existed at the close of the campaign. Obama was always ahead (pretty much), even if by a rather narrow margin most of the time. Due to the underlying factors of the economy and the historical trends of incumbency, there was never really a time when Pres. Obama was the underdog. While I have highlighted many of the aspects of over-hyped events that were not shown to have had a major impact on the outcome of the election, the authors did find that the field organization from the Obama campaign may have accounted for the difference in Florida. This was corroborated by similar findings from the 2008 election which pointed to the Obama campaign’s field organization leading to success in swing states. I won’t give away the juicy details, you’ll just have to check out the book and its cited sources yourself.

This was the perfect time to read this book as we are now on the eve of another presidential election. The early part of “The Gamble” is particularly relevant today and by today I literally mean today. In the parts on the GOP primary, Sides and Vavreck develop and define a process of candidate coverage they call “discovery, scrutiny, and decline.” In 2011 and early 2012, the presidential candidates Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all went through the process of discovery, scrutiny and decline. Discovery is when an event happens that makes the candidate jump to the top of media coverage and voter interest. After this comes scrutiny from journalists and opponents who begin to focus on a candidate’s history and views. Decline is when a candidate has reached saturation and the news coverage starts to drop. These three phases also coincide with (or partly cause) a candidate’s standing in the polls and popularity with voters. An example would be Perry’s decline: oops.

jeb trump carsonToday, we are entering the height of the scrutiny phase for Dr. Ben Carson, who is coming under heat for statements about Egyptian pyramids and fabrications of his own personal history and resume. It will be interesting to see if this leads to a decline or precipitous drop in the polls, as he was just now getting to take the lead in some of them. Interestingly, Donald Trump has somewhat withstood the scrutiny, but he was not really a discoverable person. Everyone with a TV already knows who The Donald is. It will be interesting to see if Trump and Carson eventually fade, and then if we get to a period where Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Kasich or others go through the discovery, scrutiny, and decline phases. While Sides and Vavreck talk about the discovery, scrutiny, and decline of the various primary contenders, they point out that Romney was running along at a steady second place most of the time. Based on my understanding of the poll aggregations at RealClearPolitics, there isn’t a Romney in this primary. I thought that might be Jeb, but he’s nowhere near Romney’s 2011 performance.

hillary bernieAlso, it will be interesting to see how the fundamentals factor into the general election next year. Sides and Vavreck talk about how George H.W. Bush was the only person who won after his party had 8 years in the White House in the post-22nd Amendment era. This is due to many differing factors but Nixon did not win in 1960 and Gore did not win (become president) in 2000. Only time will tell how HRC or Sanders might do but if there’s one thing their campaigns should know, it’s to not worry too much about game changers and just stay focused on the fundamentals. If Americans think things are getting better and improving with Democrats in the White House, they will vote for the incumbent party over the challenger.

This is just a brief overview of the book and some of the main points that stuck out in my mind. There are many other very interesting and compelling factors that the authors considered and discussed. For instance, the only real thing I said about advertisements was that they essentially canceled each other out, but there is much more to it than that. If I wrote about every interesting component from the book, you wouldn’t have to go read it, and I genuinely do believe this should be required reading  for political journalists and political science/political communication students.

Here’s the link to the official site: The Gamble