How to Cover a Boring Election

Double Down delivers the gaffes and campaign dirt—but does any of it matter?

Obama with David Plouffe and Jim Messina
David Plouffe, Barack Obama, and Jim Messina.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty, Reuters.

To check whether you want to read Double Down: Game Change 2012, try this out: Determine whether you live near one of those old-timey establishments known as “book stores.” Drive to the store. Park. Find a copy of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s opus, and flip to the index. You will find nine pages that cover Donald Trump generally and 10 more Trump-related topics—“Gingrich and,” “Huckabee and,” “Obama’s college and passport records requested by,” “Rove and,” so on and on.

The Trump “candidacy” was a pointless and embarrassing PR stunt that revealed how shallow the news could get. Double Down starts with the stunt, with President Obama “rummaging through the boxes” that belonged to his late mother and coming back to Washington with a version of his long-form birth certificate. It sets a tone: This will be a chronicle of point-scoring, ego, and respectable people behaving like monstrous children, distracted—as the media is distracted—by the dumbest things.

What else could it have been? Halperin and Heilemann’s book about the 2008 race, Game Change, tackled the most exciting presidential election in generations: the rise and fall of John McCain; the election of the first black president; his upset of Hillary Clinton, the strongest front-runner who’d ever been felled. It was a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Writing about 2012 is the same talented chefs trying to cook the same dinner with a couple of pigeons and a quail.

It happens to the best reporters. Jules Witcover and Jack Germond penned tell-alls about every presidential race from 1980 to 1992, which meant that they had to cover the suspense-free Reagan-Mondale race. (Their title: Wake Us When It’s Over.) Double Down is actually 37 pages longer than its predecessor, but this might have been inevitable—the success of Part 1 has made its authors as famous as anyone in politics, part of the election’s story.

Halperin and Heilemann are now fixtures on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the daily 180-minute conventional wisdom party that, we learn, informs how Michelle Obama thinks about politics. “She watched the show religiously while working out, then fired off agitated e-mails to Jarrett about what this or that talking head had said,” write the authors—one of whom was temporarily barred from the show (and network) for saying the president came off like “a dick” at a press conference on the 2011 debt limit negotiations.

One of the book’s best stories concerns a Sept. 30, 2011 meeting between the president and his political team, “the Obamans.” Obama takes 30 minutes to read through “nine or ten” yellow legal pad pages upon which he’s written a self-analysis. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” the president says, having just come from a fist-pumping interview about the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. “Didn’t know that was going to be a strong suit of mine.”

Fascinating on its own, but the hook comes in November, when Obama’s strategists David Plouffe and Jim Messina inform him that “two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign knew all about the extraordinary session six weeks earlier; they had the whole roster of Obama’s regrets in copious detail.” An outraged Obama lectures his team then leaves their daily meeting in a huff. Did it silence the leakers? That’s a silly question—you’ve got the leak right in front of you, in the pages of Double Down.

This is a fitfully depressing read, deep reporting about dishonest people. The best scoops aren’t about 2012, but about donors, and about the players who might run in 2016. For all the media in New York and Philadelphia, for all the reporters who cover Chris Christie, only Halperin and Heilemann obtained “Chris Christie memo 71912 FINAL,” the vetting document that warned of the New Jersey governor’s potential abuse-of-power scandals.

We learn here that Jamie Dimon and Jeffrey Immelt, both public supporters of the president, urged Jon Huntsman to run in 2012. Huntsman ended up running third in New Hampshire, but not before unleashing his opposition team and wealthy father on the rest of the field. It was John Huntsman, Sr. who told Majority Leader Harry Reid that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid net taxes in years. It was Huntsman’s campaign that dug up Herman Cain’s sexual harassment allegations, then wondered “when the ‘high heel’ was going to drop” when Politico reported out their tip.

The stories keep flowing through the general election; the “Obamans” are less tight-lipped, and the authors better-sourced than when Game Change was reported out. One of the buzziest excerpts from the book walks through the excruciating debate prep that—eventually—helped the president discover a way to out-talk Mitt Romney. “I am wired in a different way than this event requires,” says the president. “I just don’t know if I can do this.”

Another part of that chapter, one that’s buzzed quite a bit less, reveals that Obama’s strategists didn’t really panic. They had a problem, yes, but they also had tracking polls showing them winning the election. (Sadly, we don’t learn what the Obamans thought of the Gallup polls that showed them imploding in the stretch.) This sort of book reveals just how shallow and petty the political class is, but it’s not some sort of I-Ching of election trends.

For that, you’d be well served by The Gamble. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck wrote the book while 1) blogging the election and 2) conducting weekly, exclusive polling with YouGov. Presidential elections, they write, are “tugs-of-war in which it is rare for one candidate to pull much harder than the other and shift the polls in his direction.” And so it was with Obama-Romney. A December 2011 poll gave the president a 5-point lead in “candidate preference.” He won by 4 points.

The Gamble’s not going to sell as many copies as Double Down, which makes sense, because one book is a chronicle of heads exploding and the other takes place in a frozen world. Halperin and Heilemann have campaign staffers reacting to the most forgettable gaffes, as when Jim Messina bellows that he’s “off the Cory Booker train forever” because he went on a Sunday show and derided the campaign attacks on Bain Capital.

Sides and Vavreck prove pretty thoroughly that gaffes don’t matter. The president’s mangled argument that businessmen who counted on the American system “didn’t build that” did shift persuadable voters toward Romney, incrementally, but it did not shift vote intentions. “The impact of the ‘War on Women’ in the presidential election appears to have been muted at best,” they argue—it, too, calcified what was already there in the vote intentions.

It’s fun to read these books in tandem; they are peaks, the rest of campaign coverage a barren valley between them. Double Down reveals how calculated and paranoid and bitter campaigns are, all in ways that they won’t admit to the media covering them in real time. The Gamble reveals how few “breaking” developments in presidential campaigns (the rules are different for your local freeholder race, with its scant media coverage) can actually move the numbers. Pry out the secrets, read the data, and you can ignore the rest of the clattering B.S. machine that is the modern presidential election.