For any political operative of baby-boom vintage, “The Candidate” is a title that evokes the great 1972 movie starring Robert Redford as an idealistic Senate hopeful who surprisingly defeats an incumbent after an ambivalent rendezvous with conscience. The film explores many of the themes of Samuel Popkin’s book by the same name — message, character, expectations and what it takes to win an election, even when the odds are against victory.
Popkin focuses on presidential campaigns and candidates — and that is a big difference from a fictional Senate campaign — but his emphasis on the interplay between a candidate’s words and personality, the inner workings of staff and consultant teams, and the unpredictable chaos of politics rings true for anyone who loved Redford’s character touting his slogan “Bill McKay: The Better Way.”
Popkin raises some of the same concerns for today’s political consultants and advisers that the movie raised a generation ago, notably: Is this any way to conduct the business of a great nation? And specifically, is this any way to pick a president? Popkin’s answer is a qualified yes, so this book will be no comfort to advocates of radical reform.
Popkin, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, is an expert on polling and campaign communications who has spent time in the trench warfare of presidential politics (McGovern in 1972, Carter in ’80, Clinton in ’92 and Gore in 2000). He weaves his experiences and practical knowledge into a thorough and detailed account of every recent presidential campaign, including those he studied from a distance. His compelling history is personal, scholarly and wonderfully readable — an all-too-rare combination from an academic. His only deference to the ivory tower is a cumbersome system for footnoting that requires two steps to find his sources in an extensive 27-page bibliography; for the reader curious about the journalism that produced Popkin’s interesting campaign anecdotes, the digging is worth the effort.
The book wrestles with a fundamental question at the heart of every political contest: What matters most, the candidate or the campaign? Popkin uses two quite different metaphors to explore the subject. A successful campaign, he says, is built around a team that functions cohesively, with the candidate as captain of a ship that must sail through turbulent waters. But a successful candidate must also be a dancer with incredible skill to spin, pivot and pirouette, landing back at the spot that defines “this is where I stand.”
He quotes the wisdom of Stu Spencer, a veteran of at least five presidential campaigns, who describes testing candidates’ allegiance to their positions by throwing out strong devil’s-advocate arguments. Spencer reaches this conclusion: “If you can move them . . . you know that they don’t have a very hard-core value system.” The good ones who last, he says, will smile at the end and say, “All well and good, but this is where I stand.”
Popkin sets aside his partisan credentials to explain why Ronald Reagan excelled at this test, keeping in character and outsmarting advisers who underestimated his intelligence. And he credits George W. Bush and Barack Obama for finding the right combination of message consistency, harmonious staff teamwork and ability to capitalize on an opponent’s missteps to win in 2004 and 2008.