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The Candidate

Popkin's book will fascinate campaign junkies with its capsule histories of past presidential runs.

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The Candidate
By Samuel L. Popkin
Oxford University Press
360 pp.

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By Adam Kirsch, for The Barnes and Noble Review

How do you win a presidential election? For almost all of us, this is a purely academic question: if your name doesn't happen to be Obama or Romney, the detailed advice offered by Samuel L. Popkin in The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House (Oxford) will be hard to put into practice. But since politics, in this election year, is our national pastime, any campaign junkie will enjoy Popkin's collection of case studies, practical suggestions, and gossip – much as we enjoy reading the sports pages even if we don't play for the Yankees.

Any presidential candidate, Popkin writes, has to balance three roles. He or she must be a monarch, embodying the dignity of the presidency, including the symbolic role of the first family; a visionary, putting forward a plan for how to change the country; and a CEO, running the elaborate and messy enterprise that is a campaign staff. Which role the candidate emphasizes depends on whether he is an incumbent (like Obama in 2012), a challenger (Clinton in 1992), or a successor (Gore in 2000). All in all, Popkin suggests, a challenger has it easiest: he can make promises freely without having to defend his record. An incumbent cannot so easily escape judgment of his achievements – think of how Obama is now suffering for the economy of the past four years – though he has an advantage in monarchical dignity, having already proved he is up to the job. A successor, in some ways, has it worst of all: he is forced to defend his predecessor's record while still managing to create an individual vision.

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