The press demands a response.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Best 2016 Campaign Book Is About 1988

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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The best way to understand the 2016 presidential campaign is to read "What It Takes," Richard Ben Cramer’s 1992 masterpiece on the 1988 presidential primary. If you don’t have time to read its 1,047 pages, here are some of its most important insights.

Ignore the early polls. Six weeks before the 1988 Iowa caucuses, former Senator Gary Hart displaced Senator Paul Simon as the front-runner, with Representative Dick Gephardt pulling 6 percent. Hart also had a big lead over his nearest rival, Jesse Jackson, in national polls. What did these polls mean? Nothing. Gephardt won Iowa, Simon finished third, Hart’s candidacy collapsed, and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis won the nomination. Voters don’t pay much attention until the weeks before voting begins. Discussion of the horse race before the first turn often amounts to a pile of manure. 

The Iowa bounce is usually backward. Gephardt hoped to ride a wave of positive publicity into New Hampshire, but as Cramer explained, “The press herd had digested the Iowa results and moved on to the serious business of destroying the new frontrunner.” The other candidates attacked, too, and Gephardt finished a distant second to Dukakis. Gephardt might have been better off finishing second in Iowa and letting the media feast on Simon in New Hampshire.

Beware the media’s herd mentality. Cramer, a career journalist, called the beat reporters who covered the campaign “diddybops,” while the pundits and bureau chiefs were “bigfeet.” Together, they formed a Greek chorus, narrating the campaign mostly in unison without realizing they were often missing the big picture. Today, so much of what is written by the diddybops and their tweetybop descendants remains near-sighted, making it harder to see the candidates and race clearly. 

Beware the Karacter Kops. Hart’s infidelity and Senator Joe Biden’s plagiarism were legitimate campaign issues, but the diddybops and big feet turned them into defining -- and disqualifying -- character traits, even though voters didn’t much care. The values that had guided Hart’s and Biden’s lives were ignored, reducing the candidates to a singular flaw they couldn't explain in a soundbite. Journalists – and alas, editorial boards too -- still act as “Karacter Kops,” as Cramer dubbed them, and voters should be attuned to that tendency.

Beware pundits-as-psychiatrists. When Hart returned to the race, the pundit William Schneider -- “the well-known TV-guest-in-the-know on well-known knowledge” -- called it “An act of pure narcissism. A show of contempt for the party.” When pundits put candidates on the couch, their diagnoses often say more about their own thinking than about the candidates’.

The media demands a response. After Dukakis lost Michigan and Illinois (Simon’s home state), the Washington “Wise Men” concluded his campaign needed to sharpen its message, producing headlines about an adrift candidate -- whose message had otherwise been doing very well. Dukakis’s campaign manager told him, “When you get that much advice, you have to look like you’re taking some.” So they came up with a new speech and new ads, and Dukakis won the next state by 20 points.  Cramer notes: “Of course, that was the same spread the polls showed the week before… But the press noted his changes with satisfaction.” Campaigns often change media strategies, but not all changes are made with voters in mind.

Many political journalists revere “What It Takes” as a campaign classic, but some still bristle at its media criticism; a mirror can be less flattering than we might like. To decide whether it’s fair, you’ll have to read it yourself. And until more voters do, we may be doomed to keep finding meaning in the wrong places.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net