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Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: The unique pomp and circumstance of a US presidential race

Written by <i>Time</i>’s Mark Halperin and <i>New York Magazine</i>’s John Heilemann, this book is based on more than 500 in-depth interviews with everyone from junior advisers to the candidates, recorded on the condition of a strict embargo.

People watch giant screens in Times Square, New York, as Obama wins a second term in November 2012. Photo: John Moore/Getty.

Double Down: the Explosive Inside Account of the 2012 Presidential Election
Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
W H Allen, 499 pages, £20

As the sunset spread across the Ohio plains on 3 October 2012, I was driving my ancient,  temperamental white Chevy – a regrettable impulse purchase from a Chicago shyster – north up the freeway from the small town of Hicksville, where I was staying, towards the Democrat campaign field office in Toledo. I was on my way to watch the election season’s first presidential debate.

Toledo is an auto-industry town, gritty and blue collar. Some 60 or 70 people were in the office. It was a diverse crowd: young and black, Latino and white working class – the magic Obama coalition that had taken him to the White House in 2008. The campaigners laid on pizza and snacks and I set up my laptop next to a ten-year-old black kid called Dandre, who told me he was excited “just to see the president; to know he’s the president”.

At the same time – as Double Down, an account of the 2012 presidential campaign, reports – Mitt Romney was backstage in Colorado, excited and raring to go. He had spent the afternoon playing Jenga with his grandchildren. The book describes the challenger’s pre-debate moments with his closest adviser, Stuart Stevens, in intimate detail: “‘You control this debate from four corners,’ Stevens said. ‘Don’t take the rhythm of the debate from him. It all comes to you. You control it. All these people wanted to be here, at this moment. You’re here. You’re gonna own this.’ Romney smiled and said, ‘I think we’ll have fun.’”

Obama, the book reveals, was not so sanguine. He could not find a free phone line to call his daughters; he had not slept well. He had eaten in a rush and was rattled. On the ground in Toledo, all I knew was what I saw: a tired-looking president, off his game, and an unexpectedly fired-up Romney. The volunteers tried to put on a brave face but even Dandre looked a little disheartened. 

Before the debate, I had been covering a foregone conclusion. When I drove home that night, it felt like anybody’s race.

Written by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann, Double Down is based on more than 500 in-depth interviews with everyone from junior advisers to the candidates, recorded on the condition of a strict embargo. The book takes a scalpel to the Obama and the Romney campaigns, revealing the frantically churning entrails beneath the surface.

The 2012 election may not have been painted in the broad narrative brushstrokes of Obama’s first but Halperin and Heilemann navigate the choppier, muddier waters with the same aplomb that they brought to their barnstorming story of the 2008 race, Game Change. Their access is, as before, unparalleled and the insider details they provide are extraordinary. All the double-crosses and tactical manoeuvres in the big moments of the campaign are laid bare.

The authors write at a vigorous pace throughout but the narrative is most gripping when describing the scrappy Republican primary race. One figure looms large here: the ridiculous titan Donald Trump, who spent much of the run-up to 2012 demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate before briefly floating the idea of running. 

In one speech, Trump addressed China directly with the words: “Listen, you motherfuckers . . .”

Using material from what must have been an absolute riot of an interview, the authors take us inside Trump’s head. He mulls whether to rule himself out in May when, almost unbelievably, he was polling highest among all the candidates: “Am I the only guy in history at number one in the polls who got out?’ Trump asked himself. ‘Am I fucking crazy?’”

There are occasionally odd episodes when the writing process becomes a meta-theme within the campaign, such as at this point, early in the campaign: “Obama was in the Oval Office early that Thursday, November 10 – and being told that his list had leaked. The details came from [the Obama adviser David] Plouffe and [the campaign manager Jim] Messina, who had learned that two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign knew all about the extraordinary session six weeks earlier; they had the whole roster of Obama’s regrets in copious detail. ‘How could someone do this to me?’ Obama asked.” It is a head-twisting moment: the two authors were Halperin and Heilemann and this is that book.

This kind of reportage only works because of the unique pomp and circumstance of an American presidential race. In Ohio, where I was, people joked that the main cause of traffic jams in crucial cities such as Toledo, Cleveland and Cincinnati was campaign motorcades. It is impossible to imagine a book of such excitement and grandeur about the race to win Solihull or Southampton Itchen. Though we may sensibly thank our lucky stars for it, our political theatre is the poorer because there is no British Donald Trump.