The New York Review of Books misses the mark on books about 2012 election

December 20, 2013

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The political scientist Andrew Hacker has a new piece in the New York Review of Books entitled “2014: Another Democratic Debacle?” It discusses five books — including two on the presidential campaign, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s “Double Down” and my own book “The Gamble,” co-authored with Lynn Vavreck.  (I do not know why the review excludes several other worthy election books, such as Dan Balz’s.)  Somewhat amazingly, given the different approaches of “Double Down” and “The Gamble,” Hacker manages to do well by neither book.  It’s worth taking the time to show how that is true, not just because I’m a cranky author of one of those books, but because I think his review fails to convey useful things that both books can help us understand about the election.

Hacker says “Double Down” “tells us little about the election”:

It’s like rendering the Battle of Waterloo from—and never leaving—the generals’ tents. Missing are the 130 million Americans who turned out to vote. And equally important, the 92 million who didn’t. At the least, we’d like to know why an ample majority chose to “double down” with Obama. How far, if at all, were they swayed by all that backroom strategizing?

Sure, that’s an important question.  But it is also important to understand what was going on in those backrooms too.  Ironically, you’ll get a far better sense of “Double Down’s” value from Vavreck herself:

What you get in Double Down is an appreciation for the political reality in which these campaigns are operating. The Eastwood affair was nearly matched a week later when Obama’s people finally saw a draft of Bill Clinton’s own prime-time convention speech—all twenty-five minutes—only a few hours before it went up on the teleprompter. These people, these moments, these negotiations of egos, time, and tempers—voters never see these challenges during campaigns, but in Double Down they are laid bare, and they help us understand why even strong candidates sometimes struggle in campaigns.

The point of “The Gamble” is to understand voters, but Hacker’s summary of the book won’t help much on this score.  A key argument of the book is that important “fundamentals” — conditions like the state of the economy — helped make Obama the early favorite.  Based on our forecasting model, we write:

Sometimes even modest faith in forecasting models is deemed “economic determinism” by commentators who presume that these models, and even the whole of political science research on elections, imply that elections are only about the economy and campaigns themselves are irrelevant. That is not our view, nor in fact is it most political scientists’ view. What made the 2012 election more dramatic was uncertainty about whether and how the economy would change, which in turn made Obama’s reelection uncertain. Thus, far from suggesting that the campaign would not matter, the fundamentals in 2012 predicted a close enough election that the campaign could certainly matter and possibly consign Obama to that one-term proposition (p.31).

In Hacker’s telling, we are claiming that Obama’s reelection “was assured,” and Romney “never had a chance.”  That’s not our argument.  Our argument is that the fundamentals made an Obama victory more likely than a Romney victory, but in no way guaranteed an Obama victory.  Hacker’s summary gives a misleading impression about how much factors like the economy can predict elections, and how much the campaign itself can matter.

When Hacker turns to our analysis of the campaign, things don’t get much better.  Just as he lambasts “Double Down” for analyzing the electorate “through polls” — the horror! — he takes a similar swipe at us:

When hard numbers aren’t available, they are forced to say, for example, “we do not know how many voters were contacted by either campaign.” Nor are there signs that they visited any of the counties they’ve counted, or chatted with any of the people on voting lines.

This is a factually inaccurate account of the research behind the book.  Vavreck and I were in Iowa and New Hampshire before their respective caucus and primary.  We even went to one of those places I hear is really great for talking to voters — I believe it’s called a “restaurant”.  (That story opens chapter 4 of the book.) And Vavreck, an Ohio native, spent time on the ground visiting field offices (and getting thrown out of one of them).  This is in the book too:

[Molly] Ball’s assessment fits with what we saw after visiting several field offices in Cuyahoga, Lake, and Medina counties in Ohio in October. At the Obama office in Parma, Ohio, there were many different kinds of Obama signs and stickers available for people to take home, including bumper stickers with ethnic identifiers that would appeal to the neighborhoods around Parma. At the Romney office not far away in Independence, Ohio, there were traditional Romney signs and stickers alongside yard signs and materials for other Republican candidates running in the state, particularly state treasurer Josh Mandel, who was hoping to oust incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown from office. (p.218)

We’re not claiming to have spent weeks following the candidates around the country or hours sitting in diners talking to voters.  But it’s certainly not the case that we failed to do these things.

The apparent effects of Obama’s field organizing are discussed extensively in the book.  Hacker writes of this analysis:

They conclude that Obama’s “field operation—at least as we have measured it here—likely did not decide the election.” Their reasoning is that “many people who vote in presidential elections do so out of habit,” so “they do not need to be contacted by a volunteer.” These are curious conclusions. What put Obama over the top in 2008 was a huge grassroots effort, based on locating people who don’t usually vote and personally urging them to register, often by e-mail and texting. Of course, certain ethnic groups were targeted; but equally crucial were young people, who ordinarily remain aloof from politics. These lists were updated for 2012, and the Obama strategists were well aware that the people on them would need reminding.

Yes, as we and others have found, the correlation between Obama’s field offices and his county vote share is not large enough that the field operation alone likely provided his margin of victory in either 2008 or 2012 (with the possible exception of a few states, though not enough to constitute his winning Electoral College margin, either).  That is what we mean by “deciding the election” or, if you prefer Hacker’s nomenclature, “putting Obama over the top.”  One potential reason for this finding is that many people vote out of habit, but that is hardly the beginning or end of our story.

Hacker rejects the story because it doesn’t fit with his stylized account of 2008 and 2012.  Perhaps he’d prefer to hear from the Obama campaign itself.  In September, I asked Jeremy Bird, Obama’s National Field Director, to tell me how much of Obama’s four-point margin of victory in 2012 was due to the campaign’s efforts.  He said “I don’t know the number.”  He, like several other senior Obama strategists that Vavreck and I talked to for a forthcoming magazine piece, recognizes that it is not easy to quantify the effect of field organizing and other campaign effort.  It’s not that Bird or other Obama strategists believe the campaign was ineffectual. (To me, Bird cited the importance of voter registration in Florida and Ohio, and I assume could cite more things.)  It’s that they are not prepared to state baldly that a “huge grassroots effort” was the reason he went “over the top.” Hacker may not believe our story — and, as the book makes clear, our analysis is hardly perfect — but he is inserting the story he prefers without hard evidence.

What about advertising?  Here too Hacker is off-base:

Sides and Vavreck also conclude that the costly campaigns “largely neutralized each other’s efforts.” They arrive at this view partly by comparing advertising budgets with electoral results. What they don’t try to measure was the Democrats’ edge in important categories of voters. It’s only a start to note that in both years, voters under thirty went overwhelmingly for Obama. More critically, his youthful staffers were more digitally savvy and willing to canvass in unfamiliar neighborhoods. It’s harder to visualize comparable young Republicans ringing blue-collar doorbells.

This is a non sequitur mixed with misperception.  It is true that the volume of campaign advertising — where the two campaigns were evenly matched — does illustrate why the two campaigns’ efforts largely neutralized each other.  But you see that same neutralizing elsewhere — in the debates (Obama does poorly in the first, but much better in the second and third) and in the media coverage, too.

Moreover, Obama’s edge with certain groups of voters says nothing about what his campaign did or did not do.  Some of Obama’s advantages with these voters — such as young voters and Latinos — likely reflect their reactions to George W. Bush’s performance in office or to the parties’ images and platforms.

And to suggest that Obama’s “digitally savvy” “youthful staffers” were canvassing “unfamiliar neighborhoods” — presumably using Siri to help them get around? — misunderstands Obama’s field organization.  The whole point of his organization, as Elizabeth McKenna and Hahrie Han argue in a book-length study (sorry, no link), was to recruit local volunteers who did know the neighborhoods they canvassed.

Hacker also writes:

Halperin and Heilemann’s Double Down says little about the role of money in 2012, other than Romney’s difficulties in raising it. Sides and Vavreck’s The Gamble dwells mainly on the sums spent on advertising. I found this a bit odd, since 2012 was the first presidential contest since the Citizens United decision, in which the Roberts court held that corporate entities have the same rights of expression as citizens.

This is Hacker’s starting point for some commentary on outside money and Mark Mizruchi’s “The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite.”  But what was this outside money mostly spent on?  Advertising.  This is why our analysis of advertising takes into account not only Obama’s and Romney’s ads, but those by the biggest outside groups, too.  And the implication of our analysis is straightforward: We find that advertising shifts vote intentions when one candidate can out-advertise the other.  You need that imbalance.  Without these outside ads, Romney would have faced a serious disadvantage.  So the outside money helped enable Romney to spend enough to neutralize Obama’s efforts.

Hacker then moves on to the 2012 congressional election, whose outcome — Republicans won more seats than votes — he blames on gerrymandering.  Eric McGhee and my analysis is far more circumspect, but you’d never get the impression from Hacker that there was even any debate or disagreement about this.  It’s not that gerrymandering was irrelevant, but the story can’t stop there.  Alas, this is not the first time that the New York Review of Books has uncritically cited gerrymandering as the cause of the 2012 congressional outcome.

The message here isn’t that Hacker didn’t seem to like my book or “Double Down.”  Your mileage may vary too, if you happen to read either one.  But his particular criticisms are problematic enough that people who read only his review, but neither book, will not appreciate what value they can bring to our understanding of the 2012 election.

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Andrew Gelman | December 20, 2013