Obama and Romney race in 'The Center Holds' by Jonathan Alter

Obama and Romney race in 'The Center Holds' by Jonathan Alter
The cover of "The Center Holds" and author Jonathan Alter. (Simon & Schuster; Kristopher Long / Simon & Schuster)

Among several persistently wrongheaded beliefs about the 2012 election, none beats the claim, heard even in the campaign's closing weeks, that President Obama faced a desperately bad situation and had a high probability of losing.

That zombie idea kept walking even after multiple attempts by political science experts to kill it.


Republican operatives had the most straightforward excuse to keep it alive — no one wants to give potential donors, volunteers and voters a message of pessimism; candidates usually inflate their chances of success.

Many other people got a false impression of a close contest because of badly done surveys by some prominent polling organizations, most notably Gallup. Misunderstanding of the economy blinded many political writers and talking heads, who routinely seemed to mistake a slow-growing economy for a recessionary one.

A highly visible example came in November 2011, when Nate Silver, the explicator of polls and political forecasts for the New York Times, wrote an obviously true but widely misinterpreted article in the paper's Sunday magazine. Obama would have only a 17% chance of winning if the economy failed to grow at all during the coming year, he forecast.

Silver also noted that the odds would strongly favor Obama with even modest economic growth. But the magazine's editors provocatively splashed on their cover the forecast favoring the challenger. Wails of despair from gullible liberals nearly drowned out the fact that zero growth was highly unlikely. Indeed, economic growth hit 4% that quarter.

As Jonathan Alter writes in his new book on the 2012 campaign, "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies," the president's campaign manager, Jim Messina, vowed Obama would win and that he would get the president to sign a copy of that magazine cover and then would frame it and hang it as a campaign trophy. In November, he achieved both goals.

Alter's book abounds in such peeks inside the competing campaigns. But for all his excellent reporting, he cannot provide what the campaign itself lacked — actual suspense.

Yes, he reports that Bill Clinton told Romney after the election that until Superstorm Sandy he thought the Republican would win. I trust that Clinton said it. Maybe he even meant it. If so, however, the former president's analytical ability had suffered a rare lapse; the election's outcome had not truly been in doubt for months.

Writing a book about an intensively covered campaign that ended pretty much the way it began challenges any author. The absence of a surprise ending to explain robs insider accounts of most of their power. To fill that void, Alter seeks to impose a different kind of thematic unity on his book's disparate chapters, one reflected in his book's title.

The "center" in Alter's portrayal is the administration itself, which he depicts as besieged by a radical right-wing cabal determined to repeal not just Obamacare but the entire structure of post-New Deal government.

That analysis frames the contest largely the way Obama and his aides saw it — no surprise, since Alter admires the president, whose first year in office formed the subject of his previous book, "The Promise." Indeed, Alter, a former Newsweek reporter raised in Chicago, played a role in Obama's rapid rise, having written a 2004 cover story for the magazine which helped bring then-state Sen. Obama to national attention.

The 2012 election, he declares, formed nothing less than "a hinge of history."

Perhaps so. Copious evidence shows that the GOP has moved rightward. That has allowed space for Obama, a fairly conventional liberal, to control the political center. Romney, whether "severely conservative" or a "Massachusetts moderate," would have faced huge demands for change from a newly empowered Republican Congress.

But a book that truly sought to mine the election's historical context would need to get beyond the campaign. Above all, it would have to examine the phenomenon of heightened partisanship that since Clinton's tenure has come to define the nation's politics.

That's not the book Alter set out to report or write. Instead, in the tradition of Theodore White, whose "The Making of the President" books gave birth to a genre that nonstop campaign coverage has nearly killed, Alter has focused on "detailing the backstory of the big events of 2011 and 2012." Unfortunately, most of those events appeared small even at the time — polling blips whipped into a soufflé of pseudo-significance to fill cable news airtime.


Alter proves that point in a nicely detailed chapter on Obama's terrible first debate. In the 48 hours after that event, the Obama campaign's separate polling efforts surveyed thousands of voters. The campaign's analytics branch increased the size of a short daily survey it ran to 12,000 voters a night, an astounding number, while campaign pollster Joel Benenson conducted more detailed surveys in battleground states.

The surveys all reinforced one another's conclusions: Obama had lost ground among Republicans and independents who had flirted with him after a videotape came to light in which Romney disparaged 47% of Americans as "takers." But the debate and the videotape mostly just canceled each other out, the polls found. Nothing fundamental had changed.

To defeat a president who seeks reelection, a challenger needs circumstances far larger than a blown debate performance. Ronald Reagan needed a recession, a long-drawn and humiliating international crisis and a rising political tide to beat the hapless Jimmy Carter. Clinton required a recession, a divided Republican Party, a strong third-party candidate and extraordinary political skills to unseat George H.W. Bush.

Despite the grumblings on the right that Romney lost a campaign he "should have won," he had no such advantages.

Obama won for the simplest of reasons: In presidential election years, the country now has more Democrats than Republicans. Romney needed to give a significant number of those Democrats reason to defect. He didn't. For all the campaign virtuosity that Alter carefully chronicles, in the end, nothing else really mattered.

Lauter is The Times' Washington bureau chief.

The Center Holds
Obama and His Enemies

Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster: 448 pp., $40