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The Candidate: What It Takes to Win--and Hold--the White House

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There are two winners in every presidential election campaign: The inevitable winner when it begins--such as Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton in 2008--and the inevitable victor after it ends. In The Candidate, Samuel Popkin explains the difference between them.

While plenty of political insiders have written about specific campaigns, only Popkin--drawing on a lifetime of presidential campaign experience and extensive research--analyzes what it takes to win the next campaign. ...

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The Candidate: What it Takes to Win - and Hold - the White House

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There are two winners in every presidential election campaign: The inevitable winner when it begins--such as Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton in 2008--and the inevitable victor after it ends. In The Candidate, Samuel Popkin explains the difference between them.

While plenty of political insiders have written about specific campaigns, only Popkin--drawing on a lifetime of presidential campaign experience and extensive research--analyzes what it takes to win the next campaign. The road to the White House is littered with geniuses of campaigns past. Why doesn't practice make perfect? Why is experience such a poor teacher? Why are the same mistakes replayed again and again?

Based on detailed analyses of the winners--and losers--of the last 60 years of presidential campaigns, Popkin explains how challengers get to the White House, how incumbents stay there for a second term, and how successors hold power for their party. He looks in particular at three campaigns--George H.W. Bush's muddled campaign for reelection in 1992, Al Gore's flawed campaign for the presidency in 2000, and Hillary Clinton's mismanaged effort to win the nomination in 2008--and uncovers the lessons that Ronald Reagan can teach future candidates about teamwork. Throughout, Popkin illuminates the intricacies of presidential campaigns--the small details and the big picture, the surprising mistakes and the predictable miscues--in a riveting account of what goes on inside a campaign and what makes one succeed while another fails.

As Popkin shows, a vision for the future and the audacity to run are only the first steps in a candidate's run for office. To truly survive the most grueling show on earth, presidential hopefuls have to understand the critical factors that Popkin reveals in The Candidate. In the wake of the 2012 election, Popkin's analysis looks remarkably prescient. Obama ran a strong incumbent-oriented campaign but made typical incumbent mistakes, as evidenced by his weak performance in the first debate. The Romney campaign correctly put power in the hands of a strong campaign manager, but it couldn't overcome the weaknesses of the candidate.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Sam Popkin is a leading political scientist and someone who has worked inside presidential campaigns over many years. He brings the discipline of an academic and the eye of a practitioner to the question of what makes some candidates successful and other not." --Dan Balz, The Washington Post

"No one I know has more closely studied the link between the minds of voters and the machinery of Presidential campaigns than Sam Popkin. He's a scholar who has worked in War Rooms. A strategist who knows his history. In The Candidate, Professor Popkin teaches us what he's learned--the surprising secrets that separate winning campaigns from the ones that crash and burn." --George Stephanopoulos, Anchor and Chief Political Correspondent, ABC News

"The Candidate offers a deep dive into Presidential politics. Popkin tells us why so many 'inevitable' candidates fail, why incumbency can be as much a burden as a blessing, and why the presidency is often won or lost behind the scenes. Informed, opinionated, and smart. Must reading in 2012 and beyond." --Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge

"Samuel L. Popkin has written a ground-breaking book, making use of his skills as a political scientist, his extensive experience in campaigns, and his prodigious archival research to produce a gold-plated analysis of presidential elections. His book, The Candidate: What it Takes to Win--and Hold--the White House, is not just a crucial document for campaign strategists, political reporters, and academics; it is a great read for members of the general public who will find it enlightening, refreshing, and a new source for understanding the world of high-powered politics." --Thomas Edsall, author of The Age of Austerity

"Popkin is that rare academic who can write a fast-moving, punchy book that rescues political science from spreadsheets and algorithms and thereby makes it interesting and captivating. The Candidate is argumentative, opinionated, provocative and a great read for any political junkie or activist."--Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush

"[A] valuable aspect of The Candidate is [Popkin's] insistence that what matters above all else is the team, and especially the immediate supervisor of that team, the chief of staff...convincing." --Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books

"The Candidate is an insider romp through American politics -- and a guide to the presidential elections of 2012." -- The Globe and Mail

"All political junkies should have this book next to the TV remote so they can watch Popkin's ideas play out in real time during this campaign season and the general election. Too bad for the GOP candidates that they can't read this book until May. Highly recommended." --Library Journal

"Sam Popkin is a rare breed-an accomplished academic and practitioner, who understands politics from outside and in. In The Candidate, Popkin shares his keen insights into campaigns, why they win, and why they don't. It's must reading for any student of the game."--David Axelrod

Library Journal
Combining his extensive insider experience with detailed research, Popkin (political science, Univ. of California, San Diego; The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns), who has been a Democratic presidential campaign consultant and pollster, lays out the way to win presidential campaigns in this absorbing book. Looking at the last 60 years of races for the White House, he analyzes why some "inevitable" winners lost and how dark horses won against long odds. All of the winners assembled smoothly working teams, were agile enough to respond quickly to hits, had a core of beliefs, and prepared years in advance. Who knew that Reagan studied federal budgeting for two years before challenging Ford in 1976? Or that Obama gambled everything on surprising Hillary Clinton in Iowa by working to double Democratic turnout? Popkin stresses that the losers are always fully prepared, well financed, and briefed in detail—to fight the previous campaign. VERDICT All political junkies should have this book next to the TV remote so they can watch Popkin's ideas play out in real time during this campaign season and the general election. Too bad for the GOP candidates that they can't read this book until May. Highly recommended.—Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City
The Barnes & Noble Review

How do you win a presidential election? For almost all of us, this is a purely academic question: if your name doesn't happen to be Obama or Romney, the detailed advice offered by Samuel L. Popkin in The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House will be hard to put into practice. But since politics, especially in an election year, is our national pastime, any campaign junkie will enjoy Popkin's collection of case studies, practical suggestions, and gossip — much as we enjoy reading the sports pages even if we don't play for the Yankees.

Any presidential candidate, Popkin writes, has to balance three roles. He or she must be a monarch, embodying the dignity of the presidency, including the symbolic role of the first family; a visionary, putting forward a plan for how to change the country; and a CEO, running the elaborate and messy enterprise that is a campaign staff. Which role the candidate emphasizes depends on whether he is an incumbent (like Obama in 2012), a challenger (Clinton in 1992), or a successor (Gore in 2000). All in all, Popkin suggests, a challenger has it easiest: he can make promises freely without having to defend his record. An incumbent cannot so easily escape judgment of his achievements, though he has an advantage in monarchical dignity, having already proved he is up to the job. A successor, in some ways, has it worst of all: he is forced to defend his predecessor's record while still managing to create an individual vision.

The most engaging parts of The Candidate are Popkin's capsule histories of past campaigns, especially the losing ones: Carter in 1980, Bush in 1992, Gore in 2000, Hillary Clinton in 2008. What he shows is that campaigns often suffer from the very human frailties of the candidate — his or her pride, complacency, bad temper, and misplaced loyalties. One might think that anyone skilled enough in politics to run for the highest office in the land would also be disciplined enough to overcome these flaws. But as Popkin shows, the same self-confidence that leads a candidate to run for office often makes it hard for him to listen to advice or hear bad news. (In 1980, Popkin played the role of Ronald Reagan in a debate prep for Jimmy Carter: when he hammered Carter with actual Reagan quotes, the president got red-faced and stormed out of the room.)

In this sense, Popkin concludes, our political system with all its flaws and absurdities actually does a good job of picking presidents — if only because it places a premium on humility and knowing how to take criticism. "The screening process, at least, is better than the [old] smoke-filled rooms of party leaders," he writes — a welcome note of optimism at a time when our politics often seem more dysfunctional than ever.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199922079
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/4/2012
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,355,030
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel L. Popkin is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He has also been a consulting analyst in presidential campaigns, serving as consultant to the Clinton campaign on polling and strategy, to the CBS News election units from 1983 to 1990 on survey design and analysis, and more recently to the Gore campaign. He has also served as consultant to political parties in Canada and Europe and to the Departments of State and Defense. His most recent book is The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns; earlier he co-authored Issues and Strategies: The Computer Simulation of Presidential Campaigns; and he co-edited Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Campaign Juggling
Chapter 2: Planning for Chaos
Chapter 3: Challengers: Senator Clinton in 2008
Chapter 4: Challenger Case Study: The Search for the Experienced Virgin
Chapter 5: Incumbents: Regicide or More of the Same
Chapter 6: Incumbent Case Study: President Bush in 1992
Chapter 7: Seven Successor-Lapdogs or Leaders
Chapter 8: Successor Case Study: Vice-President Al Gore in 2000
Chapter 9: Teams that Work
Chapter 10: Conclusion: Is This Any Way to Pick a President?

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Customer Reviews

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