Improspectives

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Book Review: The Gamble, from Princeton University Press

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Cover graphic for The Gamble

Title: The Gamble

Authors: John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-691-15688-0

Length: 322

Price: $29.95

Rating: 93%

I received access to a preview copy of this book via the NetGalley site.

The popular media covers U.S. presidential campaigns like announcers calling a horse race, highlighting every move, nuance, and setback as if it could determine the winner. Why? Because not doing so would give viewers tacit permission to watch something else, drive down the networks’ ratings, and cost them advertising dollars. One journalist from Mother Jones identified 68 unique events the press labeled “game changers.” Were they, or was it just meaningless hype?

Approach

In The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck analyze the race’s twists and turns in measured tones, emphasizing the role “the fundamentals” (especially the economy) play in presidential elections. Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the coauthor of Campaigns and Elections. He cofounded and contributes to The Monkey Cage, a politics blog. Vavreck is associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA. As academics, they had to strike a balance between writing for a general audience versus writing for an academic audience.

Books without sufficient analytical rigor might not be considered during tenure evaluations, so the authors took a bit of a risk by writing mainly for laymen. I thought they struck a clever and useful balance by dividing the book into two sections: commentary text, where the authors summarize their findings in the main body of the book; and appendixes that present their data and analyses in more depth. The main text contains plenty of facts and figures, but the appendices extend the analysis by including summary statistics (such as standard deviation and standard error) and other measures of interest to professional academics.

Analysis

So, did the various campaign gaffes, missteps, blunders, and revelations make a difference? Sides and Vavreck conclude that, in the long run, they did not. The American electorate is more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans with only a small percentage of persuadable voters for each election. Seemingly substantial missteps such as Mitt Romney’s statement about the (alleged) 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and Barack Obama’s (real) horrific performance in the first debate caused a momentary blip in the polls, but the candidates’ results settled back to the predicted norm within a few days.

The Republican primary season provides an even starker example of how Mitt Romney kept his forward momentum as challengers such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum were “discovered” by the media but ran off the road due to policy mismatches with the electorate, poor debate performance, or personal issues the press uncovered. The fundamentals of Romney’s campaign didn’t guarantee him the nomination, but the odds were ever in his favor.

So too with Obama, who could rely on an (albeit slowly) improving economy to lift his campaign. Sides and Vavreck point out that even a general sense that things are getting better makes the incumbent very hard to overcome. Just as most Vegas odds makers give NFL teams a three-point edge for home field advantage, improving economic times provide a lift to sitting presidents.

Of course, campaigns and independent organizations do their best to overcome these limitations through voter outreach (aka the vaunted Obama “ground game”) and advertising. The authors’ analysis confirms previous work that ads shift opinions for a short time after viewing, but the effect fades quickly. The Romney campaign tried to leverage that fact by buying a lot of advertising in the days just before the election, but the Obama campaign had done a good job of maintaining their candidate’s presence and prevented the Romney campaign from succeeding.

The Gamble also addresses what the Obama win implies for American politics. Did his win, which was by a reasonably substantial margin, constitute a mandate and indicate a liberal trend in the polity? Recent votes in favor of legalizing gay marriage and marijuana seem to argue in favor of that interpretation, but Sides and Vavreck found that the electorate tends to equilibrate by moving in opposition to the winning candidate’s views. In other words, a liberal candidate’s win results in a more conservative electorate and vice-versa.

Conclusion

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, the percentage of the electorate that will vote for their preferred party’s candidate regardless of attempted persuasion is so large as to render most campaigning moot. The campaign machines are so well-tuned, the authors argue, they cancel each other out over the long run. The fundamental elements, especially the economy, are far more relevant. I find that aspect of The Gamble comforting.

Before I close, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the cover designer. I didn’t see the designer’s name in my preview copy of the book, but the cover image uses the point of the “A” in “Gamble” as the fulcrum of a dynamic balance between red and blue, which is a terrific touch. It makes a good book that much better.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

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