Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Double Down

Double Down
Double Down opens with Obama losing a major debate to a wealthy Northeastern politician with perfect hair. The sleight of hand here, though is that it's John Kerry--and Obama is losing the prep-debate just before he goes on live for his make-or-break second public debate with Romney.

This is clever story-telling and it's the kind of thing Double Down hits dead on target. Life is a collection of events that often are either unrelated to each other or do not relate in the way our gut says they do. Taking a messy hair-ball of real life and turning it into a coherent story is something writers do with varying degrees of success in order to give us exciting epics minted from the morass of the 'real.'

In Double Down it's the sometimes spoken, sometimes inferred metaphor for (a) the electorate maybe choosing Obama again or, more often (b) Romney clinging to some gaffe rather than doing proper damage control as he did, after all, publish a book entitled No Apology. In real life, of course, Romney did try to do damage control intermittently, the Obama campaign cast about desperately for a slogan (finally settling on Forward.) and, if you want to use gambling metaphors I think to the people involved it looked a lot more like the Friday night poker game where every new dealer gets to set new rules than blackjack.

Still, it's the author's job to craft a narrative out of these events and finding a common thread on which to hang the (often dirty) laundry is a great approach. If you're a good enough story teller that'll get you half way there.

Of course what kind of raw material you start with also matters. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann proved they were experts in Game Change, the 2008 election story that was turned into an HBO special (Sarah Palin's return fire opened with the logo transitioning from 'HBO' to 'BHO' which shows you just how good she is at economically making a statement--see also 'Death Panels'). With Double Down the question you have to ask is this: was the raw material better or worse?

In a sense, you'd almost say it had to be worse--after all, Romney will be able to enter Disney's Hall of Presidents without needing an additional robotic model. Obama is no longer the first black president--well, he still is--but he's already been elected once. No one flamed out as utterly as John Edwards ... unless you count Herman Cain ... but most people don't. There was, and maybe never will be again, a Sarah Palin on the ticket.

So 2012 was less exciting, right?

Well ...

Halperin and Heilemann have done their homework--and then some. They go deep into interviews with a vast variety of people to come back with the ultimate inside story. You should already have seen the highlights but in case you haven't here are some of them:

  • It was Huntsman's dad who leaked the Romney Tax Return story to Reid.
  • Michelle Bachmnan sobbed in her campaign bus after losing the straw-poll to Perry.
  • Team Obama tested the possibility of swapping Hillary for Biden.
  • Romney made fun of fat people and was fascinated by Chris Christie's weight.
There's more--a good deal more--and while you eventually will have to decide what you believe for yourself I come down on the side that these guys have done their job. I think their credibility is on the line here and they've been careful about ingesting lies. Also, at this point? After the losing? Everybody talks.

Under the fairly bland 'hood' of the 2012 elections (ask a quant: was it ever close mathematically?) there's real drama. The catastrophic first debate? The choice of VP (Christie: Too many question-marks)? Team Obama: Would he fumble? If so, how close to the goal-line? And so on.

Sure, now we know how it all played out--but if you were paying attention during the process the H's bring us back to those months where the Republicans were a clown-car / freak show and Obama seemed to be his own worst enemy sometimes. It was dramatic--and the narrative effort Double Down brings to the table makes that light up in a way even solid reportage like Collision 2012 didn't.

Is anything missing? Well, again, Ron Paul continues to be invisible. IT's true: he accomplished almost nothing. But on the other hand he did have an impact on things--and until he was shut out of Tampa, no one really knew what was going to happen.

I'd like to have seen some indication of what each side knew about the other side's technical capabilities or how one team "gathered intel" on the other. I presume it happened to some degree--but maybe not? I'd like to see whether there was any discussion of the quant's math inside Team Romney's HQ? I mean, yes--the turnout patterns did surprise a lot of conservatives--but really? Wasn't there anyone going "Well, PPP are democratic shills so we know what happened there--but Fox News polls aren't showing us winning either ... what's the average poller know that we don't?"

Even if something's missing, though, Double Down is the best-of-breed political election book. It's made for premium TV and even at this late date you'll learn things in it you won't find anywhere else.

Edited to add: I want to note that the term "gossipy" is used often to describe the book. I think that does it a disservice. The kinds of information they dig up are actually crucial views into how campaigns conduct themselves (the headless phase of the Huntsman campaign was far more directed and unified than it was when the actual candidate came onboard). This inside view is crucial to understanding how these events transpire. It might not all be true (I can't say, personally)--but it isn't trivia and it isn't gossip.

Some Additional Thoughts
If my 14 year old self were teleported from the past (let's say, oh, the 80's) to today (approximately 30 years later) I'd still recognize most of the things in my house. Sure, the computer would be bit of a mystery--but I'd have seen "word processors with keyboards" by that time. It'd be mindblowingly better--but not totally alien. Portable phones would be (if only vaguely) recognizable. TVs would be strangely flat and seem like Star Trek versions--but I'd still recognize them as TV.

I think I could identify the microwave. Everything else in the kitchen would be fairly normal if a bit "overly flat looking" (the stove, the microwave buttons)--but the world wouldn't have changed. Not that much. Technology has not made our lives unrecognizable in the past 30 years.

Campaigns, on the other hand, have changed in just 8 years--dramatically. Perhaps unrecognizable. YouTube came on line in 2005 and was barely in use by 2008 compared to what it is today. The same goes for Twitter and Facebook. Both were around--but usage grew remarkably in the intervening 4 years. All of these have a dramatic, and different, impact on campaigns.

YouTube provides a venue to see and hear candidates in a way that never existed previously. Any quote that is recorded--that's all of them--can be played or replayed 24/7 on YouTube. This means that lying about what you said has become dramatically harder. Campaigns can release ads "for free" over the net and while demographics may skew a bit young for viral media, (a) that'll change and (b) you can still get the word out way cheaper and take way more risks than you might have done in years previous.

Today (we'll see how long this lasts) the elite political conversation is happening in 140 character bursts on Twitter. This owns or 'pwns' debates and other large live events. Forget the stupid focus groups with their dials--if you plug into Twitter correctly you can see tomorrow's meme in real time (Binders of Women). Twitter provides a speed-of-light window into breaking events that, if properly managed, can give a massive advantage or can be a massive disaster (see the JPMorgan ask us anything debacle).

Twitter represents both a new skillset that campaigns have to master (and a new potential pitfall) but it also provides a way for normal people to get involved that was nascent last cycle and simply didn't exist before that.

The third leg of the 'social media' table (look for Vine to be big somehow in 2016, I guess) is Facebook. Firstly, a bunch of people inadvertently get "their news" from Facebook--and secondly it is where some key voting demographics get their viral memes. Facebook is almost impossible to control but it's a "channel" that is gaining in importance and titanic in terms of gross eyeballs (all eyeballs are gross, right? I mean that in the terms of people looking at Facebook--even if they are by and large not looking at your stuff necessarily).

Facebook is also a potential peer-to-peer Get Out The Vote engine and can be potentially used to identify "persuadable" voters (which is the holy grail of campaign research).

Brave New World
I'm bringing all this up in a Double Down review because I was struck by something all the way through the book: This is going to be on freakin' HBO. Research after the fact shows that, yes, indeed, this is going to be on HBO.

I had a second thought: Every damn election from here on out is going to be on HBO.

Is that true? Well, maybe. Here's the deal: I think that every national election since, like, the 50's has had at least one book written about it--that's a safe bet--probably hundreds of books per presidential election. Right? That's not new.

What's new is the entertainment style deluxe treatment TV-Movie. There are a few elections that might fit that model and Reagan vs. Mondale would not be one of them. My thinking, however is that as we--the collective America--become more enmeshed in the process via social media and jersey-ism (wherein you choose a team and root for them, voting for the guy wearing the "Right color jersey" rather than, say, carefully deciding which candidate best suits you) the elections become sporting events.

Sporting events--major ones--are always televised.

With a national election the movie has to come out after the fact because before it there isn't enough of a narrative to put things together--but I think that what Double Down shows us is that even in the case of a relative blowout (Obama's 232 EV and the winning of all but one swing state makes the end result a lot more like a pro-team running up the score against amateurs than tight down-to-the-wire game) you can get a sports-like narrative out of the event.

I think Halperin and Heilemann are going to be in business for quite a while.

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