How do you win a presidential election? For almost all of us, this is a purely academic question: if your name doesn't happen to be Obama or Romney, the detailed advice offered by Samuel L. Popkin in The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House (Oxford) will be hard to put into practice. But since politics, in this election year, is our national pastime, any campaign junkie will enjoy Popkin's collection of case studies, practical suggestions, and gossip – much as we enjoy reading the sports pages even if we don't play for the Yankees.
Any presidential candidate, Popkin writes, has to balance three roles. He or she must be a monarch, embodying the dignity of the presidency, including the symbolic role of the first family; a visionary, putting forward a plan for how to change the country; and a CEO, running the elaborate and messy enterprise that is a campaign staff. Which role the candidate emphasizes depends on whether he is an incumbent (like Obama in 2012), a challenger (Clinton in 1992), or a successor (Gore in 2000). All in all, Popkin suggests, a challenger has it easiest: he can make promises freely without having to defend his record. An incumbent cannot so easily escape judgment of his achievements – think of how Obama is now suffering for the economy of the past four years – though he has an advantage in monarchical dignity, having already proved he is up to the job. A successor, in some ways, has it worst of all: he is forced to defend his predecessor's record while still managing to create an individual vision.
The most engaging parts of "The Candidate" are Popkin's capsule histories of past campaigns, especially the losing ones: Carter in 1980, Bush in 1992, Gore in 2000, Hillary Clinton in 2008. What he shows is that campaigns often suffer from the very human frailties of the candidate – his or her pride, complacency, bad temper, and misplaced loyalties. One might think that anyone skilled enough in politics to run for the highest office in the land would also be disciplined enough to overcome these flaws. But as Popkin shows, the same self-confidence that leads a candidate to run for office often makes it hard for him or her to listen to advice or hear bad news. (In 1980, Popkin played the role of Ronald Reagan in a debate prep for Jimmy Carter: when he hammered Carter with actual Reagan quotes, the president got red-faced and stormed out of the room.)
In this sense, Popkin concludes, our political system with all its flaws and absurdities actually does a good job of picking presidents – if only because it places a premium on humility and knowing how to take criticism. "The screening process, at least, is better than the [old] smoke-filled rooms of party leaders," he writes – a welcome note of optimism at a time when our politics often seem more dysfunctional than ever.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.