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.”

“The Candidate: What it Takes to Win - and Hold - the White House” by Samuel Popkin (Oxford Univ.)

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.

Popkin concludes that voters seem to divine intuitively the candidates who know where they stand vs. those who adjust, accommodate and equivocate in the face of polling results and siren calls from the various gurus who populate the modern presidential campaign. Most veterans of multiple campaigns would have to agree, even those who are skewered by Popkin for offering advice that ended up off the mark (and a lot of you are mentioned — go to the index!).

Some brilliant strategists are studied for their hits and misses. Mark Penn, for example, wins kudos for good counsel in President Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign but comes in for criticism for his less-successful efforts on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Here is Popkin’s key point: What the candidate says and believes (minus poll-tested slogans and clever, consultant-driven arguments) matters the most.

A good campaign begins, Popkin says, with the development of a message box,a big piece of paper divided into four quadrants. The upper left is for what the campaign/candidate will say about itself; to the right is what the campaign/candidate will say about its opponent. The bottom half is the reverse — what the opponent says about its own campaign/candidate and what it says about you. This box is familiar to every Democratic campaign operative, although we traditionally associate it with the late and legendary Paul Tully, who taught the technique to most of us.

Political director for the Democratic National Committee during the 1992 campaign cycle, Popkin is a veteran of most Democratic presidential campaigns going back to Robert F. Kennedy’s in 1968. Curiously, he does not credit Tully with making the box a standard feature of campaign strategy, but I suspect there is a longer story there. It could be that Popkin introduced the box to Tully, although the author makes no such immodest claim. That is worth some follow-up, given how ubiquitous the message box is in current campaign strategy, at least on the Democratic side (I have heard that Republican campaigns have their own version of this, too).

To understand the importance of the message box, go ahead and fill in each of the four quadrants in the context of the current presidential campaign. Hmm. Lots of negative under “what we say about our opponent” and not much on vision — that is, what positive things we say to define our candidate and what we will build for the future. Campaigns are infinitely complex now because of the messages disseminated by all the affiliated and semi-affiliated super PACs, but if you reduce the current dialogue to the simple box that Popkin describes, the context of this debate comes into much sharper focus.

Popkin applies the message box to his case studies of presidential campaigns: Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush in 1992, George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama vs. John McCain in 2008. To fill out his themes, he weaves in ample evidence from campaigns as far back as Truman vs. Dewey in 1948. He organizes his analysis around three types of presidential candidates: challengers seeking to unseat an incumbent, incumbents fighting for reelection and successors attempting to inherit the job from a predecessor.

His accounts of recent campaigns rely on popular books such as “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in the case of the 2008 race, but he also uses the even more insightful volume produced by Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz, “The Battle for America 2008.” Yet he leaves out other obvious sources, such as Richard Ben Cramer’s masterful account of the 1988 campaign, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” even though it would have helped his cause.

“The Candidate” will make enjoyable reading in the midst of the current campaign. One of Mitt Romney’s big money guys, Anthony Scaramucci, reportedly just sent the book to the former governor’s entire campaign team. All the Obamaites would be wise to get copies, too.

Mike McCurry was White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton and is now a communications consultant.


What It Takes to Win — and Hold
— the White House

By Samuel L. Popkin

Oxford Univ. 350 pp. $27.95