Previewing the 2012 San Diego Jewish Book Fair, Popkin provided a lively, anecdote-studded and systematic review of the Obama-Romney contest. The standing room-only crowd at the Lawrence Family JCC on Oct. 4 heard him draw upon his vast experience and his current book, “The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House.”
“You don’t turn an election around in one debate,” Popkin said. “Mitt Romney has the ball in his court. This is the time when people’s eyes were opened so he has to convince people he is worth a second look.”
A seasoned campaign veteran, Popkin said all presidential campaigns tend to follow common patterns. Challengers talk about change and incumbents try to keep their movement alive.
“Obama’s ‘hope and change’ could have been Jerry Brown in 1992 or 1976 or Jimmy Carter or Gary Hart,” Popkin said. “The themes are very similar and they repeat. After four years, the incumbent honeymoon is over but do you (the voters) want to renew the vows? No matter how good you are, it becomes more of the same.”
In military terms, campaigns are asymmetric warfare, not the mano-a-mano fight that most people think. Either side of the campaign is based on different weapons and different options. The president’s effort is like a battleship that is very powerful but slow to turn; making very big waves. The challenger is like a PT boat that aggressively zips around and is very nimble. According to Popkin, unlike chess, where all moves are visible and can be evaluated, presidential campaigns are more like poker.
“You don’t know some of the cards they are holding, there is the luck of the draw you can’t predict,” Popkin said. “It’s a game with bluffing and many unknown contingencies, making it much harder than being a CEO.
“Mitt Romney is one of the most competent CEOs ever to run for president,” he continued. “Yet, after the 2008 campaign, he told his friends that running for president is a lot harder than he thought.”
In fact, the mechanics of campaigns are enormously challenging. Both sides have their pre-strategies and push them tirelessly to win. But having a pre-strategy is not enough. Why? Using former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson as an example, Popkin noted the media would ask him about his opponent’s strategies.
“Everybody’s got a strategy,” Tyson is quoted as saying, “until I punch them in the face.” So it is with presidential campaigns.
Popkin also notes that running a campaign is larger than managing a fast-growing startup corporation. The candidate is running for more than president — he is running for first family, presenting a wide set of values and trying to communicate that to millions of Americans.
“It takes extraordinary audacity to say, ‘I am the best to manage the country and be the most powerful leader in the world,’” Popkin said. “And don’t believe you can just buy the campaign.”
In his experience, Popkin said he believes voters are not looking only for ample resumes. They are looking for who is ultimately best for the nation. Who would be good for you? Do they mean it? Can they do it?
“It’s not about who is right or wrong. It’s about who you think will best further your aims,” he said.
According to Popkin, Obama now needs to warn voters not to change horses in the middle of the stream. He needs to make the case to “Look before you leap.” On the other hand, Romney needs to make his case that “Obama’s a failure and it just didn’t work out. Look what you can run away from and start all over.”
It remains to be seen if Romney can follow through on his debate performance. Campaigns get harder the closer you get to election day and rely more heavily on internal teamwork.
“Its like climbing Mount Everest,” Popkin said. “The higher you get, the less the oxygen, the harder it is to process information, and there is less and less time to do it on the spot.”
Popkin’s presentation is the first of the 18th annual San Diego Jewish Book Fair, presented by the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture. The largest Jewish book fair in the U.S., it spans nine days, from Nov. 3–11. Tickets are available at www.sdcjc-.org/sdjbf/index.aspx.
— Sam Popkin is a political science professor at UC San Diego. Popkin has advised several Democratic presidential campaigns, including Jimmy Carter and Al Gore.