Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review: Collision 2012

Hope You're Insured For That ...
Review: Collision 2012 
If A Bad Day On the Romney Campaign was a view of the last presidential election through the very narrow focus of the Benghazi attacks and their importance in the outcome and the upcoming Game Change II: Double Down promises to be the ultimate insider's guide to the Romney-Obama showdown, Dan Balz's Collision 2012 is right in the middle: it's the story of the election from a veteran newspaper man who had great access to the candidates themselves.

We now live in an age where presidential elections are literally "made for TV"--like a movie or film--and, of course, we will get our movie for 2012, even if it's just on HBO. We're also going to get 2016 if Hillary runs ... and quite possibly 2020, whatever happens. Today moreso than the past, elections are multi-month (or even multi-year) sporting events complete with reversals of fortune, showdowns, and weather events. We've got out-sized personalities, soundtracks, and lighting considerations. We've even got the requisite red and blue jerseys for people to wear.

If 2008 begun this, 2012 matured it and Dan Balz takes us back through it all step by step.

Collision 2012
Some wag said of the 2012 election it was "The guy who anyone could beat against the guy who couldn't beat anyone." I'm not exactly sure what collided in the 2012 election but sometimes it certainly did feel like an unstoppable object hit an immovable force. Balz makes it clear that however rocky a start the candidates got off to, by the time the election had crystallized both candidates wanted the American public to make a "choice." In Obama's case it was The Rich (Romney) against the Middle Class (the voters). In Romney's case they wanted a referendum on Obama's first term but finally settled for increased momentum after the first debate.

I followed 2012 pretty closely and I wondered what I'd learn going into Balz's book. Here are some things it showed me that were new:

  1. The guys who didn't run all had reasons. It is said of incumbents that (due to their advantage) they draw weak opponents--hey, thinks Christie, why not wait for 2016? Reading Balz's interviews and analysis of Haley Barbour, Huckabee, and others (Christie) I came away with a much different opinion. I don't think everyone was just biding their time or didn't get in because they thought Obama would be tough to beat. Stuff like spouses, money, or other issues seemed like credible reasons each person didn't get in the game.
  2. Balz interviews several of the not-Romneys and we get a sense of what they were (or were not) thinking. He also conveys his sense of how not-serious several (Trump, Cain, Bachmann) were.
  3. He covers Twitter and the debates. Balz points out how Twitter had matured by the 2012 debates and became an instant measure of victory or defeat which was largely invisible to the candidates. Whether it will remain the place where the elite political conversation is happening we don't know--but was a force to be reckoned with in 2012.
  4. A Romney staffer threw up during the Empty Chair monologue at the Republican convention. I knew the Tampa convention was pretty much a disaster but the plainly-stated detailed perspective was fascinating.
  5. Romney thinks he was misquoted on the 47% remarks--but the transcript shows he was not.
  6. Team Romney was fairly hapless when it came to trying to figure out what to do about Obama's strategy. They determined (focus groups) that people liked him (so they couldn't just trash him and call him a socialist) and he hit Romney with Bain over and over--and Romney's team felt if it was explaining it was losing (they shoulda called John Kerry to ask what he thought about Swift Boats ...). The result was a weird if very expensive stasis of running ads that didn't do much. They also totally misjudged Obama's ground game.
  7. The VP selection story is well-told. Paul Ryan, under heavy press scrutiny, had to resort to running out the back-door and into the woods to get out of his besieged house to make it to the super-secret announcement. I suspect this is the last time the media will neglect to cover someone's back yard.
  8. Obama was prepared for the first debate--kinda. It's not like he blew off everyone and did no prep but the team felt going in like he wasn't ready. Romney was super prepared for the first debate--but after that his strategy fell apart.
Collision does a decent job of capturing the pageantry. There are some scenes with the massive crowds and so on. Lacking a singular personality like Sarah Palin, I think that the drama is dialed down a little--but the stakes themselves were probably higher. 

Does He Leave Anything Out?
Balz doesn't spend a lot of time (and almost none of the particular rules-specific depth) on Ron Paul's last hurrah. This is probably a good thing as it could get its own book. He covers the unskewed polls phenomena but doesn't quite address the conclusions of poll-averaging: that from start to finish, with more polling than had ever been done in the history of presidential campaigns (maybe any campaigns) Romney was never at 270 EV. 

His VP pick and his first debate moved him closer--but he never really made it to "contender" status. For all the pomp and circumstance--for all the drama and pageantry--for all the traditional ups-and-downs that the political pundit class obsessed over--it was never an actual race.

If you look at Amazon there are a number of 2012 books. Some offer explanations. A few offer conspiracy theories. Collision is a completest look and it's a good one. Balz has the credibility, the access, and the writing talent to make it a stand-out in a crowded field. 

There is a bit of the "does a fish-see-the-water" question going on as, with Balz's history, he is unquestionably inside the game more than apart from it. He covers, for example, Obama's crushing technological wizardry but we don't get a sense for whether this level of innovation has altered the landscape forever--or if it, in combination with a unique candidate, produced a one-time event. It may not be fair to judge Balz on future history but there's a level of predictive analysis that I think will need to be done in hindsight (probably by 2020) to let us know just how much 2012 was a harbinger election (or not).

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