Book Check: "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election"

Title: The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

This Book is Obviously About the Obama-Romney Election, Right? Yes, but with a twist. This book is a post-mortem of the 2012 presidential election by academic political scientists -- John Sides teaches at George Washington University and blogs at the Monkey Cage and Lynn Vavreck teaches at UCLA -- rather than political journalists.

Generally, political journalists get to write the first draft of history for presidential elections. Indeed, there was the usual spate of books by journalists allegedly diagnosing the 2012 election, though the coin of this realm was surely Double Down: Game Change 2012, which I previously reviewed right after it was released earlier this month. Double Down was written by political journalists who focused on the 24-hour news cycle of the campaign, the gaffes, the psychoanalysis of the key players and the horse race. In other words, the usual stuff. I compared Double Down to political pornography: fun to read, but distorting of reality.

Enter The Gamble. What had never been done before was to give political scientists the assignment to follow a presidential campaign and write a book about it in "real time" (rather than years later in peer-reviewed journals). That is, have an account of the campaign based on empirical data rather than conjecture, which is what most political journalism amounts to.

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Should I Buy It? I'm going to save the answer to that question for the end of this review. Instead, let's approach the question this way: what do you think you know about why Obama won and Romney lost in 2012?

Obama's onslaught of ads in the Spring of 2012 that attempted to "define" Romney? The Bain Capital ads? That Obama overcame a bad economy? That Romney was too conservative? Romney was too moderate? The 47 percent video killed Romney? That, as Romney alleged in a call with campaign donors after the election, that Obama won because he gave more "gifts" to certain constituencies (Latinos, women, etc.).That Obama ran a superior "ground game" campaign?

These were some of the different reasons seized on by pundits and journalists to explain the results of the election. And these answers were all either wrong or making a minor moment into a decisive one.

This is the strength of The Gamble. By relying on empirical data, Sides and Vavreck (S&V) rifle-shot each of these explanations and show why they were wrong. For example, we know that while campaigns matter, in presidential elections, the money spent by each side tends to cancel each other out, neutralizing each other. We know that Obama's ads trying to paint Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat didn't work -- because people already had a proxy view of Romney as such dating back to January 2012.

We know that the economy actually favored Obama because while it was growing slowly, it was growing enough such that Obama was the favorite, and Romney may have made a strategic mistake by focusing almost exclusively on the economy. We know that the voters who like to classify themselves as independents are actually closet partisans and end up voting for the party they more closely ideologically align with -- only about 11 percent of the electorate are truly independent. We know that because most voters are partisans, "gaffes" don't matter and the 47 percent video did not matter much in deciding the winner.

We know that rather than being too conservative or too moderate, Romney was actually more closely aligned with electorate than Obama, ideologically speaking. We know that despite the chattering class's critique of Obama as aloof and professorial, voters actually find him warm and think he is more like them (the "empathy gap") than Romney. We know that the media did not cover Obama more favorably than Romney -- they both got the negative treatment at turns as journalists focused on conflict and alleged game-changers.

If read this book you will know this much and a whole lot more. I earlier compared Double Down to pornography, but perhaps a food analogy is more apt vis-a-vis The Gamble. If Double Down is cotton candy, then The Gamble is your veggies. Perhaps not as much fun, but good for you(r political IQ).


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