18 January 2010

Review: Battle for America 2008

I've been looking for a good inside-story sort of book about the 2008 presidential election for a while now. When the Washington Post reviewed The Battle for America: The Story of an Extraordinary Election, I was intrigued enough to place a copy on hold at the library. The book wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it wasn't bad either.

I was hoping that this book would provide a ton of insider information that you couldn't get elsewhere. And in a way, it did. There are interviews with countless staff members on each of the major campaigns all the way up to the candidates themselves. But interviews alone don't cut it. The book is a phenomenal overview of the election for someone who wasn't there. Balz and Johnson have a knack for strong narrative, and the broad strokes that the book sometimes takes are great for what they are.

But I feel like what they are isn't enough. After an in-depth look at Iowa and New Hampshire for the Democratic primaries, Super Tuesday is wrapped up in just a few pages. From what I remember, that was the tensest time of the entire campaign. Hillary and Obama had split the four early states, so it was do-or-die in Super Tuesday. I'd love to have read more about the operations of both campaigns as they scrambled to get the necessary delegates.

And the other part of the campaign that lacks depth is the coverage of the Republican side of things. I closely followed the Democratic primaries, probably to the detriment of my knowledge in the Republican world. But I feel like a vast majority of people reading this book (if you're a Republican, why would you want to rehash a staggering loss?) are in the same boat. Sure, McCain had things wrapped up pretty quickly, but does that mean that the Democratic primaries should get literally three times more space in the book than the Republican counterparts?

Balz and Johnson also had the annoying habit of assuming a bit too much knowledge. In the final chapter, they wrote this:

The S&P index of the leading five hundred stocks had fallen more than at any time since 1937, with every sector taking double-digit hits...

What in the world does "double-digit hits" mean? Are we talking in terms of percentages (and percentage of what?)? Is it in terms of dollars (a $75 hit doesn't sound too bad to me)? Is it in terms of public opinion? The metric of the S&P 500 itself? I can't tell, and too often Balz and Johnson leave loose ends like this.

That said, the book is a superb broad narrative of the election. A great reminder of how things played out in the larger sense. Maybe I just need to pick up a copy of A Long Time Coming by the staff at Newsweek. Every election cycle they send reporters with the campaigns under the promise that whatever they collect will not be written until after the election. Maybe in that book I can find more of the nitty-gritty for which I was looking.


  1. I'm not sure how much "insider information" there could have been if the authors just did interviews after the fact or even during the campaigns. The only way they could get anything that people weren't willing to telling them later would be if they were actually there...

  2. Yeah, and that's what I was hoping for. But I guess I'll have to go to the Newsweek book for that.

  3. Double-digit hits almost certainly refers to a 10+% drop in the index. Indices are functionally useless in comparing in absolute terms one to another, anyhow, and even an index in isolation is a fairly useless number at one data point, as its real function is to track a basket of prices/securities/assets over time.

    Business is stupid, is my point.

  4. That's a fantastic point.

    But yeah, I figured it was a >10% drop in the index, they just never actually write that. But even with that, like you said, not a great measure of anything in particular. Small sample size and all.

    You were right, is my point.