While following the results of the early primaries these last couple of weeks I've been reading The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 by Mark Halperin and John F Harris. Follow their advice and you could be in the White House in 2012.
They know their stuff. Halperin and Harris speak with authority, having watched and written about the Clinton and Bush campaigns for many years and having interviewed the candidates, the much-maligned Karl Rove, and many others.
The Way to Win analyzes the problems that can threaten a campaign, many of which disrupted the Clintons' campaigns for and life in the White House. The most important and most difficult problem to control is what the authors call The Freak Show.
They describe the changes in recent years in how people get their information. With a 24 hour news day on the cable TV stations and with instant news online, with radio talk shows, with blogs and sites like drudge.com, the sort of "news" that is reported has widened to include attacks of all sorts, substantiated or not, rumors, innuendo, and flat out lies, the more inflammatory the better.
They call the three major TV channels (ABC, CBS, NBC), the newspapers of national significance (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post), and the weekly newsmagazines (Newsweek and Time) the Old Media. These are news outlets where editors, with differing degrees of success, used to filter out the unsubstantiated attacks, the rumors, and the non-pertinent. They used to require multiple reliable sources. No longer. The recent NY Times story, based on anonymous allegations that McCain was at one time "too close" to a lobbyist, and the editor's apology for having run it, is an example of the decay of standards in even the best of the Old Media.
These two editors from the Old Media (Halperin at ABC news and Harris at the Washington Post) attribute the rise of right-wing radio to the fact that the Old Media is liberally biased. (From the horse's mouth, folks.) The conservatively slanted commentary on Fox TV brought some balance to the airwaves. (Fox news seems to be unbiased.) But now we have Matt Drudge and his bottom-feeding news gathering techniques and the wildly uncontrolled political blogs, which have combined with Old Media to make public life a Freak Show.
There are many other things that go into a successful political campaign besides control of one's image, including the careful nurturing of political relationships across the country over decades so that money and other kinds of support are forthcoming when the election finally rolls around. You will be a much more successful candidate if you can control internecine back stabbing and leaks among your team, something the Clintons may have finally learned to do and at which Bush has been very successful. The McCain story originated with a fired staffer who was unable to get along with others on the senator's campaign team.
A winning candidate will have memorized, as he has memorized the times table, the number of delegates from a state, whether the state is winner-take-all or if the delegates are proportionate to the popular vote, the date of its primary or caucus, which counties vote Democratic and which normally go Republican, where the retired military live, where the black vote is strong, the state's major industries, the condition of its economy, the religious leanings of people in different parts of the state, what the polls show people are thinking about there. And he will know this about all 50 states, whether they have the mega-delegate count of California (441) or New York (281) or will bring him only a very few electoral votes like Wyoming (18) or Alaska (18.)
So how to counteract a Red ALERT on Matt Drudge announcing that you are a bigamist or worse, a thespian? George W Bush assigned a guy full time two years before the primaries to deal with the inevitable problems that now beset any figure in public life, but especially a presidential candidate. This guy had 24 hour access to the candidate, who apparently was quite frank with him about the skeletons in the Bush closet and released to him all his financial and medical records, gave him the names of witnesses to numerous events in his life, and provided pertinent documents.
A wise candidate, the authors say, will be entirely honest with his image controller and tell him what he is willing to talk about and what he wants to hide from the public if he can. (A drunk driving arrest in 1976 in Bush's case; Lord only knows what in the Clintons' cases.)
When accusations arise, especially those that are manufactured by one's opponents, the campaign's image guy must be able to handle the media knowing what is fact and what is speculation. If there were questions Bush's firefighter could call the candidate and have a statement within minutes. It's vital to respond to attacks quickly. The Obama campaign has live feeds at headquarters of every moment of every public appearance of every other candidate so they can answer critical comments within minutes.
Unverified allegations wouldn't normally be aired at a reputable news operation, according to Halperin and Harris, if it weren't for the Freak Show. If Drudge and the blogs are talking about something eventually the Old Media pick it up if only to tell us what Drudge and the blogs are doing. Standards slip as Old Media try to compete with the new.
This book is packed with information about how Bush did this, how the Clintons did that, and what Gore and Kerry did and didn't do that cost them the presidency. Their worst mistake was to let their image be controlled by others. But there's much more to a successful political campaign than image and it's all in this book with details and recommendations how to do it right.
Despite the date in the title this is a book that will live on long after the 2008 election has been decided and President McCain is in the White House.