There are books that over-promise and under-deliver; this is one of them. A front cover blurb from Nate Silver promises that The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election is “The definitive account of what really happened and what really mattered in the campaign.” This is far from a definitive account.
One of the main points made in this mathematics and polling-based treatise is that voters tend to be almost evenly split in American presidential elections and, thus, it takes something substantive to move them to one side or the other. It especially takes some major event to change their initial choice as to who to vote for. In the 2012 election, neither Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks nor Barack Obama’s poor debate performance in Denver were dominant factors in the outcome according to Sides and Vavreck: “The impact of this debate showed, once again, how quickly even dramatic moments like the 47% video could be undone by new events as the tug-of-war between the candidates continued. The losses Romney appeared to suffer after the video’s release actually made subsequent events like the debate more likely to bring him gains….”
And then there’s the factor cited in The Gamble, that the incumbent in the Oval Office wins 68.7% of the time. Against this background, where many votes are cast in stone, the writers supposedly explain what factors determined the election outcome. Except that they actually don’t. In a number of instances they tell us that voter surveys were not “necessarily dispositive.” And then they examine various factors – such as religion, only to tell us that the factor or factors were negligible: “In 2012, Romney’s religion appeared to be a minimal factor in his loss.”
The writers discount the notion that the economy would define the election: “There was much speculation as to whether late changes in the economy would reshape the presidential race. This has rarely been the case… (major economic) shocks are uncommon.” So much for that issue.
Some issues are brought up and left unresolved such as the alleged personal favorability gap between Romney and Obama: “The exit poll can shed no light on this question. Our data cannot resolve this issue either….” The writers go on to quote a statement from Mitch Stewart, director of the Democratic campaign group Organizing for America, to the effect that “the electorate is just not that volatile” (emphasis in the original). Sides and Vavreck also repeatedly remind the reader that “Many (voters) were loyal partisans.” Because the data they present is not determinative and because the writers cannot pinpoint what decided the election, the account is far less than satisfying.
The Gamble would have benefited from better editing. As an example, in a section discussing the number of local campaign offices for each candidate we find the statement, “Romney had outsourced the operation to the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was charged with mobilizing support for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.” Since the RNC is not a person – notwithstanding the debate as to whether a corporation is a person, this is grammatically incorrect.
If there’s one point worthy of consideration raised by this account, it’s that Romney sought to appeal to conservative Republicans when he actually needed the support of moderates and liberals in the party. But the book undervalues the importance of Bill Clinton’s involvement in securing a winning margin for the re-election of President Obama.
Personally, I never arrived at the feeling that this rather emotionless book “explained” the 2012 election. Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann is the competing account that does so, while presenting the politicians on both sides as honorable yet flawed human beings. Halperin and Heilemann bring flesh and blood to their story, something that is sadly lacking in The Gamble‘s robotic and inconclusive interpretation of events.