Political scientist Sam Popkin discusses race for the White House at JCC in La Jolla
By Steven Mihailovich
Who will be the president of the United States? For many pundits and analysts, this election is one of the most pivotal and offers the starkest contrast between candidates in recent American history. Will voters validate the efforts of President Barack Obama and entrust him with another term? Or will the people pick former Governor Mitt Romney to lead the nation to the greener pastures?
In support of his new book, “The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House,” UC San Diego Professor Samuel Popkin spoke about the campaign to a group of 100 people, who gathered at the Jewish Community Center on Oct. 4 — the night after the first presidential debate.
To listen to Popkin describe it, this presidential election is just another rerun of a drama aired every four years that is rife with the same old tactics and strategies, blunders and windfalls, thrills and spills.
“There are very few different presidential campaigns,” Popkin said. “They repeat themselves over and over like variations on a theme in music.”
The noted political scientist has played a role in the development of important theories; authored a number of books on politics and the presidency; worked on the political campaigns of Presidents Carter and Clinton as well as Al Gore; advised political parties in Canada and Europe; and specializes in polling.
Popkin’s presentation was billed as the kickoff to the upcoming 18th annual San Diego Jewish Book Fair to be held around two weekends (Nov. 3-5 and Nov. 8-11) next month.
Popkin’s central thesis is that regardless of the issues, a candidate’s status as challenger, incumbent or successor dictates the message of any presidential campaign.
In that regard, Popkin argued that as a challenger, Romney offers the same fare that succeeded four years earlier for his rival: hope and change.
“No matter what they look like, no matter what party they’re from, they’re talking about the importance of change and that you can hope for better things,” he said. “When you’re the challenger you’re saying … run away with me and look what I’ll give you. You’ll be happy. There will never be dishes in the sink. There will never be underwear on the floor. The board will always be wherever you want it. Run away with me and start all over.”
Popkin argued that while a challenger is free to propose love, so to speak, the incumbent is encumbered by the familiarity of the marriage. But with the powers, privileges and platform provided by the office of president, the incumbent is rarely the underdog.
“The president has to say, I’m safe because you’ll know what I do,” Popkin said. “He’s (the challenger) a risk because you don’t know if he’s really for you or not.
“When Mike Tyson was the most powerful, successful boxer in the world, everybody who was going to fight him would say, ‘Well, I got a strategy. I think I can be the one to take Tyson.’ And whenever they asked Tyson, ‘So-and-so says he’s got a strategy and he can take you, what do you think?’ Tyson’s answer was ‘Everybody has a strategy until I punch them in the face.’”
Popkin spoke for about an hour, addressing the obstacles and opportunities faced by all presidential candidates as well as the points specific to Obama and Romney. He noted the trait that both men possess, is rare among the people they seek to represent.
“Nobody runs for president who does not have extraordinary audacity,” Popkin said. “If you want to be president, you have to get up there and say ‘I am the best person alive to lead this country and to be the most powerful person in the world.’”
Samuel Popkin on …
■ Why he wrote the book: “The motivation for this book was to get the bad taste of the Gore campaign out of my mouth. I started it to try and figure out how could such a terrible campaign happen to such a good person? How could Al Gore so many times snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?”
■ The perfect candidate: “I’ve never found a better challenger to run for office than Yoda from ‘Star Wars.’ Yoda was from another planet and it was a dirty, swampy place, so he’d be fine in Washington. He was skilled at combat and he was of high virtue.”
■ Who will win: “Obama has a big edge. An absolute minimum of two or three to one right now simply because of the states that aren’t close. There are many ways Obama can get to 271 (electoral votes). There are many fewer ways Mitt can get there. That doesn’t mean it’s sealed. I’d be willing to bet a dinner for four at any restaurant in the country, but not my firstborn, my house, my favorite art. It’s winnable for Romney, but it’s still a little uphill.”
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