Title: The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House
Author: Samuel L. Popkin
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0199922079, 360 pages
Just in time for the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and its inevitable postmortems, political scientist Samuel L. Popkin provides his take on past White House campaigners and explains why some succeeded while others failed. Popkin succinctly lays out the three major assignments that a presidential candidate must fulfill during this arduous campaign: Be one of the people, present a vision and run a well-managed campaign. A candidate who doesn’t measure up on all three counts, Popkin says, will never get the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or perhaps win any other political race, so his advice applies, in part, beyond the United States or the presidential campaign).
The only blot on this entertaining read is the occasional misspelling or transposition of famous names, but Popkin’s observations are so engaging that you probably will forgive him. getAbstract thinks political junkies will find this a page-turner, but, thanks to Popkin’s conversational and accessible style, so will anyone who cares about the democratic process anywhere. Winston Churchill allegedly said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.” But perhaps a different piece of Churchillian wisdom applies: “Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous.”
The unexpected winners and losers
Conventional wisdom often holds that the U.S. presidential candidate with the biggest bank account, the most allies and the most ardent followers will blaze an easy trail to the White House. Reality is different. Observers assumed New York governor Thomas Dewey would be a sure winner over President Harry S. Truman in 1948; 60 years later, in 2008, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. senator Hillary Clinton were shoo-ins to win their parties’ respective nominations and duke it out for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But it didn’t pan out that way. These candidates made important strategic errors that undermined their campaigns.
Presidential candidates arrive at the podium in three incarnations: “Challengers” try to depose the opposite party’s chief executive, “incumbents” vie for second terms and “successors” try to maintain their party’s power. Politicians who are ambitious for the White House frequently emulate winning efforts, but they might find better guidance if they scrutinize losing races and understand which type of campaign — challenger, incumbent or successor — they must undertake.
As a presidential candidate, you must realize three crucial goals: 1) Assure voters you are just like them and can relate to their challenges and struggles, 2) share a vision for America and 3) manage your campaign well, thus demonstrating that you “can command the ship of state.” Failure in any of these will ensure defeat. To reach the White House, you also must achieve the following goals:
• “Create a public identity” – This is your brand. It includes your record and family.
• “Develop a vision for the future” – And convince voters to join in it.
• “Preside over the campaign” – You are the CEO of your campaign. Know what you must undertake yourself and what you can afford to delegate.
• Be “consistent and coherent” – Keep your three tasks in sync. Any conflicts will become visible to voters, leading them to see you as inauthentic.
• “Plan for chaos” – Nothing will occur exactly as you have planned or predicted…