Do Game Changers Matter?
Political Science and Political Reporting
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at their second debate, October 16, 2012. / Scout Tufankjian
Double Down: Game Change 2012
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
Penguin Press, $29.95 (cloth)
“The debate was only a few minutes old, and Barack Obama was already tanking.” So begins Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s high-drama retelling of last year’s presidential election, which opens with the final mock debate, 48 hours before the president and Mitt Romney would take the stage for their second face-off at Hofstra University.
Adding to the excitement of the rehearsal was Obama’s poor performance at the first match-up in Denver. The consensus on the Denver debate was strong. On the right, The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes called Romney’s win “thoroughly dominating,” while the New York Times’s liberal-leaning editorialist Andrew Rosenthal lamented Obama’s “many lost opportunities.” On the day after Denver, the New Jersey Star-Ledger put it in stark terms: “It’s a new race for the White House. Mitt Romney changed the game.”
It sounds like a transformative political moment. But it wasn’t.
Romney’s renewed vigor following the debate may have moved the odds of winning slightly, but what that first debate didn’t change was the election forecast, no matter who generated it or by what means: Obama remained ahead. Indeed, few presidential campaign moments are game changers. There is a lot of stability in presidential electoral politics.
The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, which I wrote with John Sides, describes this stability. It starts differently from Double Down: “Here is a number: 68.” We go on to explain how none of the 68 game-changing moments identified by the media in 2012 actually shifted the likelihood that Obama would win, which was always high thanks to the slowly growing—but still growing—economy. We even coin the phrase “game samer” to drive the point home. It is dispiriting to point this out, but, as Frank Wilkinson wrote, my ilk—PhDs who get all “political science-y” about the effects of campaigns—are “spoilsports” and “total downers,” who are “killing the campaign narrative.”
Two books, and two attitudes, seemingly incommensurable. Double Down—subtitled Game Change 2012—and The Gamble—defining the game samers of 2012—couldn’t sound any further apart on their approach to understanding and explaining the election. Yet, despite a few differences, the stories these books tell about what actually happened in the electorate are complementary.
For The Gamble, we partnered with the survey research firm YouGov to do weekly polls of voters, and from these data we described what, if anything, moved people in 2012. Halperin and Heilemann don’t do their own polling; they do their own interviewing and report about the internal polling and information that each campaign collected throughout the year. Critically, they tell the stories of how polling affected the campaigns’ actions. That’s where we come back in. After the campaigns act, we are there with our data to explain whether and how the campaigns’ actions moved people. From the roller coaster GOP primary through Hurricane Sandy, the in-the-moment reporting works in symbiosis with the data analysis that soon follows. In fact, sometimes, we are just flat-out saying the same thing.
A good example is the Denver debate, which didn’t in fact shift many opinions. Halperin and Heilemann are clear on this point:
Among the Obamans, there was nobody more unflappable than Plouffe—and nobody less shaken by Denver. The campaign’s research showed that there was a deep well of sympathy for Obama among voters; in focus groups after the first debate, people offered excuse after excuse for his horrific presentation. In Florida, one woman said, almost protectively, ‘I just bet you he wasn’t feeling well.’
And despite the apparent narrowing in polls following the debate, Halperin and Heilemann write:
The numbers stabilized, with Obama still holding a 50–47 lead over Romney. The only fallout, by [chief pollster Joel] Benenson’s reckoning, was that Republican-leaning independent voters who fled Romney’s column in the wake of the 47 percent [video] had returned there. What Denver had done was wash away the Democratic gains of September. The race was back to where it had been following the conventions.
Our account in The Gamble of what happened between the 47 percent video, leaked on September 17, and the October 3 debate in Denver is a perfect fit: Romney supporters who wavered after the 47 percent video came back to him after the first debate. The poll bump represented the return to Romney of voters Obama never counted on winning in the first place.
There are, of course, stories in Double Down that don’t register in the polls and analyses of political science—tales of personal relationships, soul-searching loneliness, and all of the theatrics one would expect from a group of people vying to become leaders of the free world. Few voters would believe, as Halperin and Heilemann report, that the Romney team had not seen, let alone vetted and edited, Clint Eastwood’s eccentric prime-time convention speech, which, at twelve minutes, ran nearly twice as long as expected.
What you get in Double Down is an appreciation for the political reality in which these campaigns are operating. The Eastwood affair was nearly matched a week later when Obama’s people finally saw a draft of Bill Clinton’s own prime-time convention speech—all twenty-five minutes—only a few hours before it went up on the teleprompter. These people, these moments, these negotiations of egos, time, and tempers—voters never see these challenges during campaigns, but in Double Down they are laid bare, and they help us understand why even strong candidates sometimes struggle in campaigns.
Where Double Down and The Gamble really part ways is at the end of the narrative, after the election, as Romney tries to figure out how the win got away from him. Halperin and Heilemann recount conversations between Romney and Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, who argued that Obama’s “gifts”—such as the Obamacare mandate that non-religious employers provide contraceptive coverage, or, as Romney called it “free contraceptives”—had a small but pivotal effect on core constituencies, such as women. The authors, lacking countervailing data from the Obama campaign, leave the claim uncontested. But, in The Gamble, we use our yearlong data collection to bust the myth. In one of the most surprising findings to come from our data, we discover that the campaign focus on reproductive rights did more to keep white male voters from leaving Obama than it did to attract women to him. Most women for whom this topic was important had already chosen their candidate before the Sandra Fluke, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock episodes forced the issue into the electoral limelight.
Aside from the “gifts” foible and a similar conversation about the supposedly critical role of Hurricane Sandy that Halperin and Heilemann let stand, Double Down’s authors deliver all the way to the last pages, when they dangle one last game-changer to keep readers hungering for 2016: the possibility that the Obamas and the Clintons, genuinely friends after 2012, made a pact. In some of their most important reporting, Halperin and Heilemann make clear that Bill Clinton worked hard to help Obama get re-elected in 2012. In exchange, 44, as the authors call Obama, may do everything he can to help 42’s wife become 45.
As candidate maneuvers for 2016 begin, downers such as Sides and me will be there, along with a small but growing breed of journalists—Nate Silver, David Leonhardt, Ezra Klein, and others—whose reliance on data, history, and science to explain politics, economics, and public opinion is becoming popular with readers. Our analytics are contextualized and made complete by election accounts such as Double Down. But no story about why candidates do the things they do to win votes is complete without an understanding of whether those things actually moved voters.
Cover image from Penguin Press.