Of the taking of polls there is no end, particularly in a presidential election year. Although it’s considered the better part of wisdom to feign at least a healthy disregard, if not an active disdain, for the preponderance of polling, the truth is that political junkies couldn’t live without a steady dose of polls.
The more obnoxiously pretentious a pundit the more likely he or she is to routinely decry the ubiquity of polls. The common lament from the smugly high-minded is that the media’s fascination with polls gives too much weight to the horse race aspect of a campaign, at the expense of the important and weighty discussions of policy for which voters presumably hunger.
Too much weight to the horse race? The Monitor says: Give us more of the horse race! Imagine for a moment a presidential campaign bereft of polls and the horse-race atmosphere they so helpfully foster. Venture a thought as to the dreariness – the despair, really – of having to actually pay attention to a scripted bore like Mitt Romney drone on and on about being a successful businessman or a strutting popinjay like Barack Obama insist after three largely dreadful years in office that he still represents hope and change.
Too much weight to the horse race? Would anyone even pretend to read books like Theodore White’s Making of the President series if they were simply compilations of stump speeches and position papers?
Richard Ben Cramer wrote arguably the best book ever on presidential politics, a thousand-page opus on the 1988 campaign called What It Takes: The Way to the White House, and it’s such a great read precisely because he knew better than to indulge in detailed analysis of tax plans and trade initiatives.
All the books worth reading on presidential elections are heavy on the dramatics and blessedly light on the kind of stuff that keeps policy wonks up at night. The interest is in the narrative, the story line – the plot, if you will.
Sure, the readers of the best campaign books come away possessing a not insubstantial acquaintance with the candidates’ positions on at least some the major issues of the day, but the story is driven by the personalities, the gossip, the constant and obsessive polling by news organizations, and the campaigns themselves.
In other words, it all comes down to the much-maligned horse race.
In addition to Cramer’s What It Takes, the following are some recommended books on presidential elections:
The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon and the 1960 Election by William Rorabaugh – A much needed counter to Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960. Rorabaugh convincingly shows how White got many important things wrong due to his shameless worship of John Kennedy.
1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon by David Pietrusza – Another corrective to the flaws in White’s work. Pietrusza and Rorabaugh wrote their books decades after the 1960 election, so they had a more expansive and dispassionate perspective than White, as well as access to information the Kennedy camp worked hard to keep from the public.
An American Melodrama by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page – A richly textured account of the pivotal 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace race by three British journalists; far superior to Theodore White’s Making of the President 1968.
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin – Purists lamented the book’s all-out gossipy tone, but no one challenged its accuracy. The book was such a sensation that the authors have already been paid a hefty sum to dish out the same treatment to the candidates in the 2012 campaign.
Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976 by Jules Witcover – Despite Witcover’s plodding prose spread out over 700 pages, the book is about as in-depth an account as one can imagine, covering four of the most eventful years in the country’s history and an election that gave us the Jimmy Carter presidency.