Double Down: Game Change 2012, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

Penguin Press, 2013

“I just don’t know if I can do this,” Barack Obama confided to his advisers. After his disastrous first debate with Mitt Romney, Obama’s team had laboured to get the President back on track, but in mock after mock, Obama failed to deliver. With just four days to go before the second debate, one thought consumed his senior adviser David Plouffe: “If we don’t fix this, we could lose the whole fucking election.” 

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of 2009’s widely acclaimed Game Change, open their follow-up volume in medias res and in the heads of Obama’s advisers. It’s ten days before debate number two, and Obama has just turned in a practice performance one observer described as “creepy.” And just like that, the unflappable Obamans transform into “the most wigged-out collection of Democrats in the country.” 

The height of the Obamans’ doubt is an appropriate place for Halperin and Heilemann to start their story. Despite the book’s title, which suggests bold, decisive action, Double Down brims with ambivalence: Obama’s, Mitt Romney’s, the voters’. Though he had been running for president for the better part of a decade, Romney often seemed only half on-board. (Post-election, his son Tagg told the Boston Globe, “He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life.”) And Republican voters weren’t any more enthusiastic, trying on nearly a dozen anybody-but-Romney candidates before finally succumbing to the inevitable. 

The authors seem ambivalent, too, at times. “The ideological contrast between the parties had rarely been starker,” they write, suggesting the potential for substance before wandering into the wilds of Barack Obama’s birth certificate and Donald Trump’s buffoonery. Which is not to say the 2012 election was not about substantial things, but rather that Double Down is not about the election: it’s about the campaign. 

While that may seem like a subtle parsing, the focus on campaigns places real limits on Halperin and Heilemann’s ability to delve into those tantalising — and important — questions about policy and ideology. Instead there are engrossing exposés of Rick Perry’s slurred debate answers (courtesy of a recent back surgery that left him souped-up on painkillers and wracked with insomnia) and Jon Huntsman’s stealth hit jobs on fellow candidates (his campaign dug up the sexual harassment claims against Herman Cain and leaked them to Politico). 

From that perspective, Double Down may leave readers with their own sense of ambivalence, delighting in the fly-on-the-wall perspective and the bizarre tales of the anybody-but-Romney candidates but hungry for something more substantial than buzzy gossip and strategy talk. 

Yet Double Down is more than just empty calories. Beyond the behind-the-scenes newsiness, Halperin and Heilemann shed light on two central campaign forces — media and money — that represent the real game-changers of 2012. 

First, media. The 2012 campaign took place in a very different media environment than the race four years earlier. In 2008, Twitter was only two years old, still an oddity in the social media world. Only about 20 per cent of Americans had a smartphone; no one had ever heard of an iPad. There was a 24/7 news cycle, to be sure, but it lolled along at a comparatively leisurely pace. 

The budding media trends of 2008 — ubiquity and speed — were in full flower by 2012. More than ten million debate-related tweets went out during the candidates’ 90-minute face-off in Denver. Afterward Obama’s advisers fretted that a narrow loss was being transformed into a wipeout because of “the novel impact of social media, especially Twitter, which amplified every meme with a fierce instantaneity.” In the second debate, Romney got his own dose of it: his description of preferential hiring as “binders full of women” became insta-shorthand for the “war on women.” 

More significant, though, was the inability of either candidate to escape the spotlight. The unrelenting coverage turned Obama and Romney into highly scripted candidates in public — especially the gaffe-prone Romney, who “gave the impression he suffered from a hybrid of affluenza and Tourette’s.” Even private conversations didn’t stay private for long. A closed-door meeting in which Obama outlined four years of sail-trimming and punch-pulling immediately leaked, causing him to whittle down his already-small inner circle. And Romney’s infamous 47 per cent comments at a private fundraiser became public in mid-September, dominating the news cycle for weeks. No wonder authenticity and spontaneity were in short supply on the campaign trail. 

Media may have been in hyperdrive in 2012, but money was even more so. Double Down teems with millionaires ready to pay to play. The first presidential election since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that loosed the stays on campaign contributions, the 2012 campaigns were awash with cash. 

The campaigns and parties spent nearly $2 billion on the 2012 race, and yet throughout Double Down they still are overshadowed by the Super PACs Citizens United made possible. These Super PACs haunted Romney during the primaries, as wealthy magnates like Sheldon Adelson thought nothing of flicking $5 million or so to their preferred non-Romney candidates. And in the general, when billionaire Joe Ricketts started shopping “The Ricketts Plan” to pro-Romney Super PACs, his attempt to portray Obama as the “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln” who has “brought our country to its knees” caused big headaches for the Romney campaign. 

Which is not to say Super PACs and the campaigns were always at odds. Halperin and Heilemann offer a nuanced analysis of Restore Our Future, a Super PAC closely aligned with the Romney campaign. Indeed, “close” doesn’t do it justice: “in every historical, genetic, and practical sense [Restore] was a subsidiary of the campaign.” Restore and the Romney campaign worked side by side up until the last legally allowed minute, when Romney sent key campaign staffers and strategists to work for the Super PAC. 

So Double Down may not be able to explain the 2012 election, but it offers useful insights into American political culture and campaigns. And unlike Sarah Palin, the game-changer of 2008 who has all but disappeared from American politics, 2012’s game-changers will continue to define national elections for years to come.