Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Collision 2012 by Dan Balz

Reviewed by Jeanne

Every four years America elects a president.  Nowadays, it seems that the four years in between is spent discussing the NEXT election even as Americans all say they’re sick of politics. As I write this, however, a look at the NY Times bestseller list has two books on current politics and one on historical politics in the top five non-fiction, which means we may not be as disinterested as we profess to be.  Although partisan titles generate much of the interest, there still seems to be some room for more neutral reporting such as this book.

Balz is a political writer for the Washington Post and as such, had a front row seat for the 2012 election.  He gives a lucid, even-handed account of the missteps and triumphs by the various campaigns, from Rick Perry’s memory lapse about what departments he would cut to Obama’s disengaged performance in the Denver debate.  Interviews with some of the participants long after the election give a better perspective on some events—and I thought it spoke well that Balz was on good enough terms with these candidates to be granted an interview.

While some reviewers took the book to task for not being gossipy enough or for not being analytical enough, I found it to be refreshing.   Some of the post-election books I’ve read revel in name-calling and blaming everyone in sight, leaving the reader disliking everyone.  This doesn’t interest me.  Neither does a long legal discourse of the current election laws; Balz contents himself with noting how the laws affect the campaigns and campaign strategy.

The Republican primaries take up nearly two thirds of the book, leaving only the last section to the general election.  Given the number of candidates, the information on each is limited; some almost to the way the Romney campaign dealt with each challenge. Even so, there are interesting tidbits about each candidate’s approach to the campaign, and how their strategies and assumptions played out. For example, Jon Huntsman, who had been in China for several years as U.S. Ambassador, was stunned at the way the political climate had changed while he was away. (In case you’ve forgotten—or tried to block it out—the other candidates included Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich.)

There are two elements I found particularly interesting in the book.  One is the way in which the near- instantaneous public reactions to events took place.  In years past, after a debate the spin doctors would meet with reporters in an attempt to color news stories about the event, so that readers and TV viewers would get the most positive view possible.  In 2012, anyone with a computer could see reactions in real time via twitter.  By the end of the debate, there was nothing left to spin. In some ways, this is a replay of the shift decades earlier when the new medium of television showed a handsome, relaxed John Kennedy debating the untelegenic, tired Richard Nixon, changing campaigns forever.

The other fascinating element was how the Obama campaign used voter data to a degree no other campaign ever had before, and how they challenged certain assumptions.  Before an election, a great deal is made of the undecided voters.  But are these voters really undecided?  The Obama staff concluded that a good portion are not; if pushed, they have indeed already made a decision.  They may call themselves that because they don’t like their party’s nominee or because they hope to find a reason to vote that will make them happier about the choice, but when the time comes they will vote the way they’ve always voted. That meant that at the end the Obama team concentrated not on “Undecideds” but on people who tended to vote Democratic but who didn’t always vote. Their focus was getting people to go to the polls, not to try to sway those who were on the fence.

If you want a sensational view of the presidential election of 2012, look elsewhere.  But if you enjoy a neutral view of the way things work in elections, then this is a book for you.

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