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Book Review: ‘The Gamble’ by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

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Years after every election you can guarantee there will be book after book dissecting it and plotting out each factoid about how and why it went the way it did. By the time those books come out, there is more sunlight on the details inside the campaigns, but also many readers have long since forgotten about it and they’ve moved to more current affairs. So these two authors, Sides and Vavreck, decided to see if they could write a book like this, but compile it concurrently while the election was actually happening. This would enable them to release it while the event was still fresh in the minds of the readers and be able to look at the event using an in-person viewpoint instead of the through the more objectified lens of history. Their efforts resulted in this new book, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.

gamble-coverSides and Vavreck took every moment along the long, hard slog of the 2012 campaign and broke it down into what we heard from the media (on both sides of the political spectrum) and what the polling data told us at the same time. They also dive into those things not laid out to the public in either cases, the missing details which can sometimes have incredibly dramatic effects on the context in which those presupposed facts get taken in. They back all this up with tons and tons of data points, resulting in enough charts to make Ezra Klein weep with joy.

One of the main thrusts in the book is the overused and misunderstood term “game-changer:”

“All told, Murphy found that the term ‘game-changer’ had been mentioned almost twenty thousand times in the ten months before the election. It was, according to one reporter, the single worst cliché of the campaign.”

This shines some light on how the political reporting establishment works to keep us all tied up and tuned into each nightly report and every breaking news blog post by declaring these innocuous, superfluous moments as huge turning points for the campaign. Even the infamous “47%” video for Romney actually moved the polling data very little in the end. It actually just cemented those people who were already for or against him and made those undecideds who were leaning to either side retreat back to their former choice.

The authors also debate the idea that if all these gaffes, political slip-ups and outright mistakes meant nothing then maybe the whole campaign cycle is also meaningless in the end. They suppose that might be true, but only in both sides of the contest agreed not to campaign at all. If one side goes full-bore and the other does nothing, the polls and voting behavior of the country will certainly swing towards the more active campaign. So in the end, especially in the 2012 version, both sides must campaign in equal amounts with equal pressure and equal money to cancel each other out. If an equilibrium like that is reached, then the authors claim the fundamentals of every election in history will likely decide the winner (where the economy is, direction of the unemployment numbers, among a few others.)

The Gamble breaks down the entire election cycle into tiny, graphed out bits to show the how it really works and what really matters in those frazzled days and nights. Not a book necessarily for the casual reader, but for the political wonks and data junkies out there, this will fill your cup nicely.

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About Luke Goldstein

A writer, movie junkie and political nerd. Basically anything that tells a good story is enthralling to me.