How To Win Elections & Maybe Sometimes Influence People: Jonathan Alter on Obama v Romney

The story begins in media res. The Midterms, 2010: in something of a rout, the Republican Party captures sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives, the largest number to change hands since 1948. What honeymoon there might have been for America’s forty-fourth president is definitively over. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, published in paperback by Simon & Schuster this week, picks up the national narrative from here and takes it through to the presidential election of 2012. Jonathan Alter, its author, has covered nine presidential elections and considers 2012 to be “a hinge of history”, “a titanic ideological struggle over the way Americans see themselves and their obligations to one another” in which the battles fought go back “to the dawn of the republic”. Hefty language requires ample support, and Alter’s the writer for the job: The Center Holds is a fantastically detailed account of the 2012 presidential election. Drawing on meticulous research and interviews with more than two hundred people close to the Obama and Romney campaigns, it comes to read almost like a handbook on how (not) to win an election. One by one, Alter ticks off all the major factors that contributed to the eventual outcome while simultaneously driving the story forward like a thriller.

Partisanship. “It was Obama’s historical misfortune to serve as president during the most partisan era in modern American history,” says Alter. On the night of his first inauguration, “GOP public opinion impresario” Frank Luntz hosted a dinner for Republican lawmakers at which it was decided that the party must unite in its opposition to the president and everything he proposed. As legislative gridlock became a hallmark of the first term, it seemed this plan had become pretty much gospel for the GOP. Alongside what was happening at Congressional level, Alter charts the rise of Grover Norquist and the Tea Party, and speculates on the effect of the right-wing media, exemplified by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. At the fringes lies “Obama Derangement Syndrome”, a phenomenon Alter characterises as racist at heart, which finds its most prevalent myth in the birther movement and its most prominent figurehead in Donald Trump. That Obama was able to overcome all of these things to win a second term may yet fundamentally change the terms of the debate.

Author Jonathan Alter

The “Moneyball” effect. In Alter’s terms, 2012 was Chicago v Boston, sub-characterised as Silicon Valley v Mad Men. “The Floor” in Obama HQ “was full of young, supersmart Obamaniacs, who often sat on large rubber balls for chairs, played Ping-Pong on breaks, and rang a bell every time the campaign raised a million dollars”. Many of the campaign team were veterans of 2008 and knew that to win again required a whole different game plan. Their harnessing of Big Data, which allowed them to microtarget the electorate, proved critical to mobilising the 900,000 volunteers the Democrats had behind them by election day. Boston, on the other hand, suffered from a “geek gap”, their team instead comprising old-school advertising muscle — including a veteran of Reagan ’84, an election that took place before some of Obama’s campaign managers were even born. Despite aspirations of big-data savviness, Romney’s campaign had neither the time nor the funds to invest in analytics in a meaningful way. Its most ambitious technological development, ORCA, which was supposed to ensure that missing Republican voters were targeted on election day for their last-minute votes, ended up dead in the water, leaving the candidate himself to rely on TV news. Broadband trounces dial-up.

Demography. Reagan rode to a landslide victory in 1980 on the same proportion of the white vote McCain won in his failed 2008 bid. In the twenty years between 1992 and 2012, the proportion of non-white voters increased 16 percent. The redistricting that took place in newly Republican state legislatures after 2010 and the laws restricting voting passed in nineteen states between then and mid-2012 certainly had a huge effect on the election. But they were not enough to overpower the support Obama had from the African-American and Latino population. In some all-black precincts in Philadelphia, Mitt Romney failed to pick up a single vote, and Chicago ran nearly four times as many Spanish-language TV spots as Boston. Race was not the only factor, though. The president’s evolved position on marriage equality won him the lion’s share of the LGBT vote, while repeated gaffes on the subject of gender equality from Republican candidates (most notoriously, Todd Akin’s talk of “legitimate rape”) near-guaranteed Obama a strong showing from female voters.

Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amongst others, in the Situation Room in the White House monitoring the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, May 2011. Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza.

History. One of the most dramatic chapters in the book details the killing of Osama bin Laden, which Alter believes history will see as one of Obama’s signature acts. Bin Laden’s vanquishing, and the deaths of many other senior al-Qaeda officers during the first term, put paid to a common impression of Democratic military weakness, while stories of Obama’s decisiveness despite the doubts of others contributed to perceptions of him as a strong leader. But the discovery of America’s Most Wanted was not the only time history would change the direction of the debate. In October 2012, eight days before the election, Hurricane Sandy made catastrophic landfall in New Jersey. The president’s swift action and warm bipartisan relationship with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey marked for some — President Clinton allegedly among them — the turning-point of the election.

All this having been said, The Center Holds is also vocal on what Alter perceives to be Obama’s weaknesses, including his failures as a communicator and his lacking “the schmooze gene”. And at many points in the story, he suggests how things might have taken a different turn. Obama’s disastrous debate performance in Denver, Alter writes, was a moment when he “almost threw his presidency away”. And would Romney have had a stronger showing without the release of the notorious “47 percent” incident? What was the effect of the attacks on the consulate buildings in Benghazi? Or indeed Clint Eastwood?

It’s all academic, of course. At the end of the whole extraordinary process, it turned out that all that had happened could be summarised in three words and an image redolent of the sort of blue-sky optimism that had propelled Obama to the White House in 2008. Even knowing the ending, in Alter’s hands it’s a thrilling ride.

Jonathan Alter, who you can follow on Twitter here, is a guest at our next Seriously Entertaining show, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. Tickets are on sale here.

Brooklyn Bounce: Jay-Z, Barclays Center, and the Return of the Nets

Everything is different. Everything is tense. Even y’all can feel, like, the intensity… Brooklyn first year. You know what I’m sayin’? Excitement… so everything is at an all-time high. I mean, at an all-time high. That goes for the referees, the ball-boys, the fans, janitors, you know what I’m sayin’?

— Reggie Evans, Brooklyn Nets 2012-4

Jake Appleman’s Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball’s Historic First Season in the Borough (Scribner, 2014) is an engrossing account of the Nets’ 2012-3 season, starting with the opening of the Barclays Center and ending with the hiring of Jason Kidd, a former Net himself, as head coach in June last year.


The game itself is front and centre. If you’re a Nets fan — or an ardent follower of the NBA more generally — there’s plenty here to entertain you. Appleman picks the season apart, analysing individual plays with the kind of athletic prose the best sports writing demands. He has an infectious stats-lust, both a hallmark of the Moneyball, FiveThirtyEight era we’re living in and the shibboleth that announces the true, die-hard fan. And if play-by-play fails to arouse, fear not, for Appleman also has a fine roster of supporting characters including Spike Lee, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, Kim Kardashian, Barclays Center mastermind Bruce Ratner, and, of course, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

A brief history. Born the New Jersey Americans in 1967, the team became the New York Nets a year later and stayed so for nearly a decade, becoming the New Jersey Nets soon after joining the NBA in 1976. Despite frequent relocation, they would keep that name for thirty-five years, only becoming the Brooklyn Nets on their move to Barclays Center in 2012. In the intervening years we meet the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Erving, sold by the Nets so they could afford to join the NBA; Micheal “Sugar” Ray Richardson, a rising star in the mid-eighties felled by substance-abuse violations; Dražen Petrović, tragically killed in a road accident in Germany in 1993; and many more. Appleman calls it “a mostly infamous history — weaving absurdity, mediocrity, heartbreak, humor, and frequent relocation”.

Today’s players are introduced in vivid sketches. Reggie Evans, “voted the league’s dirtiest player multiple times by a player’s poll conducted by Sports Illustrated” is nonetheless a “classic American success story” after an early life surrounded by crack dealers. There’s Brook Lopez, shooting the breeze and revealing nothing, riffing on “cartoons, Carly Rae Jepsen, Cool RunningsThe Mighty Ducks, Jay-Z, and Kanye West”. Also Deron Williams, “perpetually brooding”; Gerald Wallace, who tells the press about his fear of cities; Kris Humphries, enduring the censure of fans and Kanye alike for his failed marriage to Kim Kardashian; and Joe Johnson, who “often oozed the personality of the decoy that the Nets asked him to be on many offensive positions”.

The book is filled with striking scenes. In late 2012 Hurricane Sandy forced the Nets to hire eleven buses to get spectators from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Fort Greene (“it felt like the opposite of a victory lap”). The Nets’ rivalry with the Knicks is inevitably high-octane stuff and makes for an excellent chapter. Shorter sequences include Appleman interviewing Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on a StairMaster and attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where he is forced to endure the corny in-jokes of the statisticians who’re slowly taking over the game.

Brooklyn itself is also under the spotlight. At the concerts Jay-Z played to open Barclays Center, his set list featured songs from his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, raising the spectre of a borough that was in the palace of the borough it’s becoming:

From the harsh reality of the streets that hip-hop documented and glorified to the land of yuppie stroller NASCAR and organic kale, much of Brooklyn was a new world. Myrtle Avenue, formerly known as “Murder Avenue,” was now home to a bike shop that sold homemade vegan nut milk. The apartment Biggie Smalls once lived in while selling crack was listed as $725,000 in April.

Though one can detect a scornful strain, Appleman professes himself agnostic on the question of gentrification and the cash being mainlined into Barclays Center and the Nets by Russian billionaire Prokhorov and real-estate mogul Ratner. Besides, as he acknowledges, while property prices go nuclear in Dumbo, there are areas elsewhere untouched by craft beer and Captain Haddock beards. Attending a match between the Boys & Girls High School Kangaroos of Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Abraham Lincoln Railsplitters of Coney Island, he comments, “to know a Brooklyn that gentrification ignored was to know the high school basketball scene”.

It’s too early to tell, of course, what impact the Nets and their new home will have on the broader community. What seems certain is that they will play a major part in the redefinition of the borough in the coming years. As the Nets won their very first game, against the Toronto Raptors:

there was something unbelievable, hypnotic, and somewhat brand-affirming about watching Beyoncé mouthing along to “BROOOOOK-LYN! BROOOOOK-LYN!” with nearly eighteen thousand people. So much of the Nets’ marketing push was about developing a brand voice. In the team’s first big-time moment it sounded like they had one.

OK, enough chat. The bottom line: read Brooklyn Bounce. You can buy it here at McNally Jackson.

Wanna watch some actual basketball now? Here’s a highlights reel from the Brooklyn Nets’ first season: