The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.

Princeton University Press, 2013

At the tail end of the 2012 election campaign, MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough let off some steam over stat-junkie wiseacres like the New York Times’s Nate Silver, who had aggregated a slew of electoral polls and declared President Barack Obama to have a 73.6 per cent shot at retaining the White House. 

“Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 per cent chance — they think they have a 50.1 per cent chance of winning,” Scarborough scoffed. “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next 10 days.” 

Silver, on his FiveThirtyEight blog, ended up predicting not only the winner of the election, but the winner of all fifty states. He wasn’t the only one though; for a certain corner of the campaign coverage world, 2012 was the year of the numbers wonk, the polling aggregator, and, especially, the political scientist. 

Other prognosticators who proved eerily clairvoyant include Stanford University’s Simon Jackman, Emory University’s Drew Linzer, and Princeton’s Sam Wang. And it wasn’t only in the realm of forecasting that academia began pushing back against the excitable tendencies of pundits and commentators. Political scientists like Seth Masket, Larry Bartels, and Jonathan Bernstein contributed regular commentary based on painstaking research rather than the traditional media’s mix of reportage and voodoo. 

Perhaps the most comprehensive of these efforts was a blog called The Monkey Cage, which has made enough waves to have been bought by the Washington Post, where it is now published. Run by a cohort of political scientists, The Monkey Cage aimed to make accessible to the wider public political analysis based on solid academic research. 

One of the blog’s founders was John Sides, whose book The Gamble, co-written with the University of California Los Angeles’s Lynn Vavreck, aims to bring the academic rigour of political scientists’ online commentary to the publishing industry’s regular cycle of campaign post-mortems. 

In many ways, The Gamble acts as a counter to the addictive and gossipy Game Change series Washington journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have penned during the past two campaigns (see Nicole Hemmer’s review). The contrast might even be deliberate; The Gamble reveals in its opening line that 68 individual moments during the 2012 campaign were described as “game-changers” somewhere in the American media, and Sides and Vavreck have a decidedly more sober view of electoral politics. “The continual search for game-changers treats a campaign like a boxing match, where the momentum may be shifting back and forth with every punch and the knockout blow could come at any moment,” they write. “In reality, there are few knockout punches, and most game-changers do not really change the game that much.”

This means — as the authors demonstrate with exhaustive reference to polling, modelling, and charts aplenty — that such widely touted news events as Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment or the “47% video” leaked to liberal website Mother Jones, which showed Mitt Romney dismissing close to half the American public as “dependent on the government,” had almost no impact on voters whatsoever. 

Also meaningless in terms of shifting voter opinion: any of Romney’s widely reported “gaffes,” the Obama campaign’s summer advertising blitz hammering Romney for his connection to private equity firm Bain Capital, and the disruptive effects of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in the last week of October. 

Part of the reason for this was summed up by Vavreck in an interview with the Post’s Ezra Klein: “We’re not normal,” she said of people who pay close attention to politics. Most voters simply aren’t paying close enough attention for these “game changers” to matter. “The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics.” And the people who do pay attention are the type likely to have made up their mind about the candidates long before they saw any ads or heard about any indelicate statements. 

So if much media-driven coverage of the campaign didn’t matter, what did? The economy, for a start. Although many observers were convinced the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession would weigh down the Obama presidency, the rate of growth in 2012 was strong enough in historical terms to make Obama the favourite. It helped also that Obama was an incumbent president, and that his favourability rating was slightly higher than expected. 

As the authors summarise: “Presidents in their first term who were presiding over even modest improvement in the economy have been likely to win.” These “fundamentals” were all apparent even a year out from the election. 

Nonetheless, Sides and Vavreck are careful to clarify that they do not consider campaigns to be meaningless. The importance of a strong campaign was particularly apparent during the primary season, when news events played a powerful role in bringing to prominence Republican candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. All of these politicians benefited from increased media attention, but none had the campaign infrastructure to capitalise on it. Similarly, although Rick Santorum found favour amongst socially conservative Republicans, he couldn’t turn his occasional victories into sustained successes the way the well-financed, well-organised Romney campaign could. 

Even in the general election, the campaign played a crucial role, say Sides and Vavreck. But rather than a boxing match, Sides and Vavreck conceive of the 2012 contest as a political tug-of-war. Both the Democratic and Republican sides were well matched and although their advertising assaults and voter outreach efforts were able to move Americans, each could only do so temporarily, before his opponent would counter and neutralise his effort. “In a tug-of-war, the flag in the middle of the rope does not move if both sides pull with equal force,” the authors explain. If one side were to let go, however — to quit campaigning altogether — it would become immediately apparent how powerful all those speeches and 30-second spots really were. As it is, they’re mostly just fighting one another to a draw. 

All of this is important stuff, if a bit drily presented. Sides and Vavreck are both capable communicators, but The Gamble is political science first, page-turner second. Indeed, some of the structural devices they use in their narrative are so perfunctory that their presence seems little more than window-dressing. The title’s “gamble” refers to the uncertain outlook the relevant players had of the election, but it provides more in the way of chapter headings (“Ante Up”; “High Rollers”) than overarching organising principle. The authors’ sojourns to a Santorum rally or an Obama field office are efforts at on-the-ground reporting so trivial to function almost as asides. And while a tight focus on what did and didn’t matter in the campaign is the book’s raison d’etre, without a reporter’s more impressionistic eye, the authors seem to forget that politics is bigger than a single election season. Careful analysis, for instance, might demonstrate that Latino voters did not respond to an Obama executive action ending the deportation of the children of illegal immigrants, but does it not seem reasonable to suppose that the tendency of Democrats to undertake such policy action is part of the reason the party has such high Latino support in the first place? 

Ultimately, The Gamble functions as much an argument for punditry-driven journalism as it is against it. As misguided as the mainstream media can be, its take on politics, filled with personalities and storytelling and, yes, “game-changers” tells us much about how our politics operates. The true revolution in campaign coverage, then, might come not from the political scientists, but the yarn-spinning wordsmiths who read them and absorb their lessons.