What Does It Take for a Candidate to be President? Interview with Samuel Popkin

News at Home

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Samuel K. Popkin has quite an extensive track record of scholarship and political work. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969 and began his career as a scholar of modern Vietnam -- his The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam is considered a classic. It wasn't a coincidence that he was subpoenaed by the Pentagon Papers grand jury in 1972 -- he spent a week in jail after he refused to testify on the grounds of academic freedom.

Mr. Popkin has since become one of the nation's leading experts on electioneering, polling, and political strategy. Currently a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, Mr. Popkin has served as a polling and strategy consultant to the Clinton and Gore campaigns. From 1983 to 1990 he was a CBS News consultant on survey design and analysis. He is the author of The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns and co-editor, with Samuel Kernell, of Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency. His most recent book is The Candidate: What It Takes to Win -- and Hold -- the White House, which was just published by Oxford University Press.

I spoke with Mr. Popkin over the phone about The Candidate, the dynamics of the current presidential campaign, and the sheer joy of research.



Was it just lucky timing that The Candidate was published now, in an election year?

The Candidate came out now because it took me ten years to work through the dysfunction and chaos of the Gore campaign. Every time I've been in a political campaign and then returned to the university, I'd ask myself, 'What surprised me that I hadn't expected to matter, and what did I think was going to matter that didn't?' I always worried about the voters. But while I was on the Gore campaign, I realized I was starting to see the rhythms of campaigns in general and something from day one never seemed right. And I said, 'I'm going to sit down and try and figure out what was the problem.'

I started out thinking the problem [with unsuccessful campaigns] was a bad strategy or a bad strategist. But very soon I realized the problem was bad teamwork, that the military saying 'planning is everything and the plan is nothing' was more profound than I had realized, meaning the more you plan, the faster you can rethink what you're doing when surprises occur. And the Gore campaign was total chaos, where nobody quite knew what anybody else was doing.

When I started on The Candidate, I immediately realized that there are three different [kinds of] campaigns -- challengers, incumbents, and successors -- and every campaigner thinks they know which campaign they're in, but they're often wrong. Challengers, incumbents, and successors have very different problems and assets in campaigns. Every candidate thinks about redoing their last campaign, but it never makes sense because an incumbent can't do what a challenger did, and a successor candidate like a Gore or a McCain can't just do what the last candidate from their party did, because they're in a new position.

What can a challenger do that an incumbent can't do, and what can a successor do that an incumbent can't do?

A challenger can point at the glass and say, "You promised it would be full and it's only half-full. Your plans aren't working. You aren't delivering." A challenger can always worry people like that. A challenger is like a speedboat -- they can move very fast, they can have a war room like the fabled war room of 1992, and they can have rapid reaction to everything. A challenger can always promise hope and change. The Obama campaign's hope and change symbols were very similar to statements in the past made by Kennedy, by Clinton, even by Dewey and Nixon when they were challengers.

The incumbent is like a battleship -- nothing can move fast, but it can make very big waves. A good contrast is the difference between Obama visiting Afghanistan as a challenger and Obama visiting Afghanistan as a president. The highlight of 2008 was when he shot a three-pointer and high-fived the troops; now he goes back to sign a treaty and celebrate the shot that killed Osama bin Laden. It was a huge event; the other was a cool media moment.

Only an incumbent can do something as big as Nixon going to China. That's the gold standard of something that changes the whole election. But a move like that takes years of planning -- there's nothing spontaneous when you're president.

And the successor?

The successor thinks that they're very well-known because they've been in the public eye for eight years. But they've been in the public eye, as George Will put in when describing George H.W. Bush in 1988,, as a lapdog or a cheerleader. Most voters have no idea who they are or what they have done. A vice president can use Air Force Two to raise money and make friends and do small events that build up some stature, but they never get the nomination without challengers. A successor (and a successor isn't necessarily the vice president or even someone in the previous administration -- witness John McCain) has to prove to people that they're a leader on their own and not just a cheerleader.

It's a big change to go from being a yes man to showing people you really are the deserving new king. George H.W. Bush, the only person who pulled it off from office in the last century, did a brilliant job of understanding that the convention would be the time when people sort of kissed his ring and accepted him as a new leader; Al Gore felt he had to do that immediately, that Bill Clinton was just an albatross, that the only reason he wasn't seen as a great man was Monica Lewinsky. But of course, like every other vice president, he was seen as a cheerleader.

The last administration that managed to pull off this sequence successfully -- challenger, incumbent, successor --  was of course Reagan/Bush in '80, '84, and '88.

And that's an astonishing feat -- the only one since World War II. That's the ultimate. And you have to give both Reagan and H.W. Bush enormous credit for the three-peat, as they call it in the NBA. It's an incredibly hard task, because after eight years, you're bound to have disappointed a lot of followers.  By 1988, the religious base of the South was getting very antsy -- "you promised this and you promised that, and you haven't really done much for us" -- and Vice President Bush -- the Episcopalian, of all things -- made huge friends among the religious leaders in the South by helping bring the Ethiopian falasha Jews back to Israel. That made no news in America, but it was a very big deal for the evangelical community, and it also won points in Israel.

Then he managed to pull off dividing a Democratic Party that had not been able to understand how to deal with the issue of crime rates and separating the issue of crime from the issue of racist policing or minority worries about police. The Dukakis campaign was paralyzed when legitimate issues behind the Willy Horton case were brought up. They were like a deer in the headlights when these issues were raised, even though they had been enormous firestorms in Massachusetts. They just didn't know to confront them.

How much is success of that magnitude due to proper strategy and coordination and teamwork on the part of one particular campaign and mistakes on the part of the other?

An example of a really good campaign that still lost was the Ford campaign of 1976. You couldn't be a candidate or a campaign in worse circumstances than the Ford-in-'76 campaign. Here was an appointed vice president who succeeded a disgraced president, who was pardoned to enormous anger (though he had no choice and it was the right thing to do historically), and there was the collapse in Vietnam. Jerry Ford started the race, depending on the poll, between 30 and 40 points behind Jimmy Carter, but he only lost by a handful of votes -- by the narrowest possible margin -- in a race that easily, in the last week, could have gone either way. And the Ford campaign involved at the center Dick Cheney, James Baker, George H.W. Bush, Doug Bailey -- these were the people who started to understand the whole array of the kinds of campaigns, and we still see this play out today.

To bring it back to Gore, what would he have had to do to win the 2000 election?

Well, that was an astonishing loss, even given that Monica Lewinsky was a major problem. You could not really say that a presidential moral stain was a bigger problem for Al Gore than the Contra affair and the possibility of an indictment was for the vice president, Bush, in '87/'88.

Gore would have had to have done two things differently. One, he would have had to coordinate between the advice his family gave him and the advice his strategists were giving him, so that the people in the campaign knew when and why he was changing his mind and doing things without them having a chance to talk it through with him. Two, he would have had to have been patient about separating himself from the president. The notion that he had to separate from the president immediately made coordination inside the White House next to impossible, and made it virtually impossible for him to see the ways that he could capitalize on the positive aspects of the Clinton presidency and promise to continue them or talk about the ways that George W. Bush threatened those positives.

How do you navigate being a successor candidate when the incumbent is so unpopular? There was McCain in '08, but you'd have to go back to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 --

Well, Humphrey, Humphrey was the worst of all the cases. Poor Hubert was hamstrung by a president who, until the very end, wouldn't let him separate on Vietnam. He was in a terrible situation where Johnson was saying until mid-October, "if you say anything about the war, I'll go after you or I'll sic the unions on you." That was a Shakespearean tragedy. Johnson was playing King Lear and destroyed everything in the process.

The tragedy of Minnesota presidential contenders. I've always thought Humphrey was, along with Mondale, unfairly maligned as --

Let me just say, in 1992, at the convention, I was right in the middle of all the planning and polling and people in the war room. The first or second day of the convention, I bumped into Peter Hart, who had been Fritz Mondale's pollster. And I said to Peter, "this would never have happened if Fritz hadn't been such an honorable, honest, strong advocate for policies. Nobody could say after the 1984 election, "it was the messenger, not the message." And that made all the difference to persuading groups within the Democratic Party that the party had to adapt to new conditions if they were ever going to regain power. If Fritz had been a Dukakis or a McCain, you never would have had the changes that made it possible for the party to recapture the center and have more reasonable policies on trade than the unions wanted, for better or worse. There were still plenty groups in the party that would rather lose the presidency, comfortable with the control they thought they would have forever in Congress, than moderate their demands within the party. And after 1984, Democrats started to realize that if we ever wanted the presidency, we had to rethink some of our policies. That's from the heart.

What would it take for the modern Republican Party to go through a similar kind of introspection?

Well, that's happened before in GOP. First, in the '40s under Thomas Dewey -- who I think is one of the most impressive people ever to run for president. He was the governor of New York, and he and other Republican governors, who needed part of the Roosevelt New Deal to hold their states together and manage their respective governments, locked out the more radical ideas of Robert Taft. They literally did what the Democratic Leadership Conference did decades later to bring moderate Democrats into some kind of agreement on policies that would make sense for the whole party and move the party more towards the center and stop some of the identity politics moves that were damning the party to minority status even though they were morally justified.

I think that the future of the Republican Party is going to be some group that re-establishes a balance that way. The Republican Party is likely to get a group of Jon Huntsman-like people to establish some kind of [GOP] left wing just to balance the playing field -- I don't mean moderate Democrats, but I mean people a little bit more concerned about long-term governance. And that's not going to be easy, because just the way the unions weren't willing to lose power within the Democratic Party just so the Democrats could do better, I can see a lot of the fights among the religious groups in the Republican Party as very reminiscent to George Meaney and the AFL-CIO fighting tooth-and-nail to stop NAFTA, to stop trade, to a lot of legislation that maybe was bad for some of the older industries, but was necessary for our economic modernization.

Back to the incumbent/successor dilemma...

Right. If the incumbent is incredibly unpopular, the successor has a terrible problem. Adlai Stevenson could have told you that in 1952.

The problem is that, if the successor is a senator, like Stevenson or McCain -- or even if they were a governor -- they probably supported and probably voted for a lot of the policies of the incumbent. A successor running off of an unpopular administration has to have a very clear line of why the party that was on top of the mess is the better choice for cleaning it up than the party that promises a new start. It's an extraordinarily difficult position.

Going back to 2008, if McCain had been a decent candidate and tried not to rely on his personal image as a maverick, he might have made it a close race, especially during wartime against an African American who had never been in the military. But John McCain kept telling reporters for eight years, "I know I need to learn some economics." And the day John McCain made a fool of himself was when he convinced the White House to call a special summit on the financial crisis to give him a chance for some leadership. Once he got in the room with everybody, he literally  couldn't say a word. There was a three-page action memo that was the basis for the meeting, and he kept saying, "I haven't read it." I'm willing to bet that he had read it, and didn't understand a word of it, because -- despite having brilliant economic advisors -- he had never done the personal mental discipline of focusing and learning something on the subject. It didn't fit his maverick, cool, top gun image.

Is it necessary to achieve mastery of these topics, or do you just need to be able to convince voters that you have at least some knowledge and give at least some thought to these issues

A candidate needs to listen to enough of his or her advisors to know which ones are show-offs and which ones have good judgment. To do a thirty-second soundbite these days requires someone to know a lot about a topic. You need to know enough so that if you were explaining, let's say, a soccer game to another American, you'd be able to describe it about as well as I could describe a Vikings-Packers game. You don't have to know it as deeply as Bill Belichick or Bud Grant, but you've got to know enough to understand some of the moves. And that takes more than people realize.

You know, Dick Armey had a wonderful quote. He said, 'All I needed to know about foreign policy in Congress was, when somebody asked me a question, I'd make disparaging comments about the French and move on to the next question.' [Laughs] When you're out there on the presidential stage, it's different than it was fifty years ago. If you're asked a question about the Greek attitude on the euro, you've got to be careful that you don't put your foot in your mouth, even if it's just a one-liner.

And we saw that dynamic in the Republican primary, where candidate after candidate -- Herman Cain, Rick Perry -- imploded after a single major gaffe.

Anybody who says that this process doesn't work should look at the people who got weeded out fast. 'Oops!' You can say what you want about Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but look at the people couldn't steady the course, who didn't know just how far to go with pandering and how to limit your promises: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann. Ed Rollins, from day one, kept telling Michelle Bachmann, 'It's not enough to say you'll reverse Obamacare, you've got to say what you will do after.' And every time she'd make some inflammatory statement on Fox News, she'd raise a lot of little money, and [she'd] keep going on that. That drove Rollins crazy, because he knew that in order to have any staying power, she'd have to have a follow-up.

So how did the GOP end up with Mitt Romney? Mitt Romney campaigned on being the inevitable winner, which you wrote in your book is often a mistake...

And that was a very big mistake. To say you're the inevitable winner is like saying, 'crown me now and let it go.' He was the first choice of professionals who thought he was the only guy with the credentials to win in the fall. But the primary process encourages voters to go for their ideal candidate. Only really savvy professionals think about not who would be the greatest first date, but who they could make a life with. That takes time for most people. And Mitt was, for the most part, very careful at not doing things in the primary that would make it easier to get the nomination and much harder to get from the nomination to the White House.

He also had one big problem that George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton didn't have, and it's giving him a lot of weight to carry the rest of this year. George W. Bush had a centrist challenger: John McCain. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was a centrist, so Barack Obama had no big challenge on the left. In 1992, Bill Clinton was challenged more by Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey than anybody on the left -- not Jesse Jackson, for example. These candidates didn't have to move very far to the left or the right to get through the primary successfully. But Mitt, to deal with Santorum, had to endorse some of the attacks on contraception, and to deal with the Tea Party he had to repudiate the crown jewel of his accomplishment in Massachusetts -- health care. As recently as 2009, Mitt Romney wrote a USA Today op-ed saying that if Obama dropped the public option, Obamacare would be a perfect national follow-thru to the Romney Massachusetts plan. Well, Obama did drop the public option, and if it hadn't been for the Tea Party, Mitt could have campaigned as Obamacare plus a good economy. Instead, he had to renounce his own crown jewel.

Has that ever happened before, where a candidate has had to do that kind of reversal?

I think that this is the most dramatic one that I have ever seen. Other candidates have been very careful about separating. Ronald Reagan presided over the biggest tax increase in California history, but he managed to pull that off in a way that didn't make him look like an advocate of big government. He did it very carefully so that he kept his values, and Mitt hasn't been as good at that.

What are the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Obama and Romney campaigns?

Romney's running a much better campaign than he ran in 2008. He learned in 2008 that he had to delegate more and listen to fewer people in order to be agile enough. He has a very sophisticated and talented strategist in Stuart Stevens, who did brilliant work, in my opinion, in 2000 and 2004. His problem is how he's going to deal with the baggage he picked up during the campaign, the statement about contraception and the support for the Tea Party. But he has the advantage in that there's no way to claim we've recovered from the financial meltdown. The jobs situation is very bad, and he can talk a lot about doing it. The strength of the Obama campaign is that they can put Paul Ryan on the stand, and the Tea Party, and some of the moves in Congress, and pull a Truman -- force Romney into closer defense of policies that he would rather avoid and evade until he were president.

And have they been doing this successfully?

Well, you see two very good current examples. The Obama campaign is pushing hard on student loans. That's a big issue for young voters -- is the interest rate going to double or not in the next few months? The Ryan approach in Congress is, 'we'll cut the student interest rates by taking money away from the health care funds.' Obama has many ways to win on that one, because he can portray it as asking students to kill the poor in order to survive instead of doing something about equity and taxes. There's a million ways to make that look cruel and mean and unnecessary. I'm not judging the rightness or the wrongness of it -- I'm not an economist -- but it's easy to play that plan as crazy, rightly or wrongly.

So who faces the bigger hurdle in this campaign?

Romney. Removing a president after four years is regicide. That's not an easy step for a lot of people in the end.

Now, there are many people for whom removing Obama is removing somebody they've never considered legitimately like "us." And there's no pretending that this isn't racial. And Mitt has been very careful -- he doesn't say anything about race -- but when you talk about the president having "European ideas," there's no doubt that for many people, that resonates with the sense that he's not white. Now...

How does that work? I mean, that he has "European ideas" but he's not --

Well, Obama has an aloofness to him, and there's an otherness issue. Ethnocentrism is really triggered in many people either by the fact that he's African American or that he's not quite of the mainland -- the Hawaii and Indonesia thing. Polling data shows that very clearly, in ways that I didn't think would be true.

I thought -- look, when Jack Kennedy won, all the phobias about Catholics disappeared. I thought the same thing would happen with President Obama, and I was wrong. I was very wrong. If anything, there's more awareness of race now than there was in 2008, and I'm very surprised by that and I don't blame it on any politician. It's just a fact.

So what does this mean for Mitt Romney?

Well, I think, I think Mitt Romney has played it in a way that is very important and valuable to him. Mitt Romney also has a problem of otherness. It's not as big a problem, but for many people a Mormon is a strange kind of person as well. He can't talk about Christianity in the same way many other candidates can. But when talks about Obama being more European, that just lets people who are really rabidly... anti-that-kind-of-person when they think of Obama, know that he's closer to them.

The danger of this is that minorities know what's going on when they hear that kind of talk. One of the things politicians always forget is that when you create a "we," the "they" is aware of what you're doing.

Will Mitt Romney face a backlash of anything approaching this magnitude because of his religion?

The people who are uncomfortable with Latter-day Saints are mostly in states where the Republican advantage is so large that it doesn't matter. I don't think there is any way that Mitt Romney is hurt by his religion in this election. I think that finally the country may be over a hurdle with Latter-day Saints and whether they're a cult or an acceptable variety of religion.

* * * *

What surprised you when you were putting The Candidate together?

What surprised me was how similar the the campaigns of all the challengers and all the incumbents were, and in particular how much the campaigns of incumbents who were in trouble were varieties of the Truman campaign of 1948, in particular the way they played a divided government to their advantage. That helped me to understand what happened to Dukakis. It helped me to see how Clinton managed to take what was a disastrous situation in '95 and turn it around against Dole.

You mentioned earlier the dysfunction of the Gore campaign, but was there a campaign that jumped out at you as being particularly well-organized and well-tuned?

The first one I saw closely that gave me a lot of insights about what to look for was the 1992 Clinton campaign. It's not that it was a well-oiled corporate machine. What they had was a spirit of working together.

There was another one that really impressed me: Thomas Dewey's 1948 campaign. Dewey didn't lose because he was the simpleton people said he was -- Dewey lost because Robert Taft preferred Dewey lost to Robert Taft losing his influence in the Republican Party.

What was particularly interesting about that campaign? It's the earliest you examined, I believe.

I started with that campaign for a simple reason. That's the campaign, to this day, that has had the most good books about it. And so I said to myself, 'after having been in five presidential elections and doing polling and many others with CBS or for The Economist, if I take a look at Dewey '48, will I see things that have been missed?'

I went to the Dewey archives, and I found an enormous amount of fascinating material that I had different insights to through my experience in modern campaigns. And that's when I realized that it's the team around the candidate that matters, and I was amazed at how much, in the archives, had not been talked about in enough detail. In a better world, I wish I could have played Robert Caro and written a hundred pages just on Dewey and Truman.

So why did Dewey lose and Truman win?

Truman didn't win because he had the union vote -- union states actually went to Dewey -- but Truman had union money, and that allowed Alban Barkley to rally the farmers who had normally been Republican to vote for Truman.

The hero of that campaign was the former governor of Ohio, James M. Cox, the man who founded what is today the Cox Enterprises media chain. Back then, that meant he owned a lot of newspapers. His Washington bureau chief was told to investigate the problems with agriculture subsidies, and he found out that a Republican bill limited the government from building any new storage facilities for grain after 1946, and that that clause was inspired by a lobbyist in the pay of the grain exporters. They found proof that for every bushel of grain sold for less than the support price, that lobbyist would get a bonus!

That's a testament to the power of the media and investigative reporting.

Yes, and only after the election did the New York Times run a single article about this. And in that article -- which I quote in my book -- one Republican said, 'you know, if we had taken all the money we spent on ads and bought up all the grain, we could have won the election.' It's true. It's astonishing. These things happen in campaigns. Dewey's farm advisors were from the co-op movement at Cornell, and they were more concerned about urban milk prices than grain prices. It didn't dawn on them that the farmers in the Midwest were going to go crazy -- even Iowa went Democratic that year. Herbert Brownell had been trying to get the Dewey campaign to hire a Midwestern farm advisor, but they, "Oh, we don't need one."

There was a student at the University of Minnesota who got this exactly right in his master's thesis. He had a map of which counties went for Truman and which counties went for Dewey in that election in the state of Minnesota. The dairy counties went for Dewey -- the grain counties went for Truman. That student's name, by the way, was Walter Mondale.


Isn't that amazing? I mean, c'mon, how cool is that?

[Laughter] I love that. And that's a testament to what is available in any library if you scratch the surface and look hard enough.

Yes. I mean, I got so much of this Truman material going through the oral histories in the Truman Library. I wish I could have gone back even farther, by the way, because, you know, in 1939 Dewey was already a national crime-busting hero as the toughest D.A. in America --

Yeah, didn't the mob try to assassinate him?

Yes! Yes. Dutch Schultz was going to assassinate him before he put Dutch away, so the mob killed Dutch because they knew if Dutch killed Dewey, the whole FBI would be on 'em. And then, here's the thing -- he puts away the leader of Tammany Hall for corruption, and the Minnesota GOP brings him out in 1939 to give a speech in Minneapolis. And before he came to town, and after he came to town, the Dewey operation did 800 field interviews about the image of Dewey -- and that's in the archives. How cool is that?

There are always things like that which have been missed. And I don't want to say that the books about the '48 campaign aren't fabulous, but I had a different way of seeing it from the two sides, like when you look over a football game and you see things you didn't see.

But there's always something, isn't there?

Yeah, it's amazing how much Dewey did early. And Dewey did get even with Taft for sinking him by making Eisenhower president, because he thought that was the only way to save the party and the country.

I don't think there's any way of getting around the fact that Robert Taft cared more about protecting his reputation than making Dewey president, and Truman gave Taft the rope with which to hang Dewey, and Taft hurt Dewey badly. But after the election Dewey went to see General Eisenhower, who was then president of Columbia University, and he said, 'I'm devoting the next four years to making you president, and there is nothing you can ever do to repay me, because I'm not doing this for myself, I'm doing this for the country.' And he sent to Eisenhower Jim Hagerty, who became Eisenhower's press secretary, John Foster Dulles, who became Eisenhower's foreign policy advisor, and Herbert Brownell, the brilliant strategist and lawyer, who became the attorney general under Eisenhower. That was all Dewey's doing.

Fascinating. Thank you for talking to HNN, Prof. Popkin!

Thank you!

comments powered by Disqus