Reading List: Pointers From Previous Campaigns

Posted November 9, 2011 at 5:35pm

With the 2012 elections less than a year away, it’s campaign season all the time now.

That means both Democrats and Republicans have been looking at the playbooks of some of the previous elections.

President Barack Obama seems to be reading up on Harry Truman’s 1948 comeback as a guide to his re-election, complete with slams against a “do-nothing Congress.”

To help us learn more about these elections, we asked five experts for their book recommendations:  University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Byron Shafer, University of Texas at Austin associate professor of government Daron Shaw, George Washington University associate political science professor John Sides, Georgetown University American government professor Michael Bailey and University of Michigan political science professor Vincent Hutchings.

Here’s what they said:

“The Loneliest Campaign : The Truman Victory of 1948,” by Irwin Ross
With his approval rating hitting record lows and the unemployment rate remaining uncomfortably high, Obama is reportedly looking at Truman’s victory over New York Gov. Thomas Dewey for inspiration. But when reading about this campaign, it’s important to look at everything in context.

From the “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” catchphrase to the Chicago Tribune’s iconic “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, elements of this campaign have been etched into our national memory.

Shafer, however, urges readers to separate fact from mythology by reading this book. Published in 1968, Ross’ book provides a narrative of the Truman re-election effort that predates many of the more famous Truman books.

“This is the classic ‘against all odds’ story of re-election, written before authors of these books began to feel that it was all only secondarily about presidents, and most about these authors,” Shafer said.

“Blue Smoke & Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election of 1980,” by Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover
Shafer also recommends this book, which is somewhat unique in the genre of presidential re-election campaign narratives because it is as much about how Jimmy Carter lost as it is about how Ronald Reagan won.

Longtime political pundits Germond and Witcover explain in their book how a unique combination of issues and circumstances led to Reagan’s victory.

Carter’s re-election efforts were seriously crippled not only by the Iran hostage crisis and soaring gas prices but also by a devastating and unorthodox primary challenge by then-Sen. Edward Kennedy.

On the other side of the aisle, Germond and Witcover detail how the Reagan campaign capitalized on Carter’s weaknesses while overcoming its own challenges such as the third-party candidacy of John Anderson, a Republican Representative from Illinois.

“Reelection: William Jefferson Clinton as a Native-Son Presidential Candidate,” by Hanes Walton Jr.
Hutchings suggests this book by Walton, an expert on both presidential politics and African-American politics.

Walton looks at every state and national election Bill Clinton ever ran in leading up to his successful 1996 presidential re-election campaign.

What sets the book apart from others about Clinton and about re-election campaigns in general is that he focuses on the role regionalism played in Clinton’s electoral success.

Specifically, Walton explores why Clinton’s status as a Southerner and his time spent as governor of Arkansas translated into electoral success on the national level.

Walton also looks at Clinton’s support in the African-American community — something that is also tied into his cultural identity as a Southerner.

“The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns,” by Lynn Vavreck
While not solely about re-election campaigns, this book “about the themes that presidential election campaigns use” is “quite relevant,” Shaw believes.

Though it began life as an informal slogan for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid” has lived on as a popular mantra for many political campaigns.

Vavreck, however, argues that it’s not just the economy that matters but also how candidates talk about the economy.

“Vavreck shows how much the economy structures presidential elections but also how candidate strategy matters on top of this,” Sides said. “It doesn’t happen often, but candidates with an economic tailwind can lose and candidates with a headwind can win. Vavreck shows how.”
“The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns,” by D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields
Of course, the economy isn’t the only issue that resonates with votes in presidential elections. This book explains the history of wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion and explores how those issues can be effective in determining who wins a presidential election.

Instead of the cavalier attitude pundits sometimes take in regard to these controversial issues, authors Hillygus and Shields base their analysis on years of historical and statistical research to explain how wedge issues work in presidential politics.

“This is a careful analysis of how issues work in campaigns — a useful antidote to pundits whose claims get way ahead of their evidence,” Bailey said.