Eugene McCarthy, speaking from experience as a member of Congress and presidential candidate, was fond of saying that "Being a politician is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, but dumb enough to think it matters." Growing up as one of McCarthy's constituents, I always saw politics as a bewilderingly complex game, much harder to understand than the touchdowns and field goals my beloved Vikings fought for. Yet, watching as Lyndon Johnson tried to explain the Vietnam War and later as the Watergate Committee did its work, I had no doubt that the game mattered.
The game was also changing. My first direct exposure to politics was meeting Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag at the Littlefork County Fair, and several times I listened to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey regale gatherings of the faithful in northern Minnesota towns. I quickly learned, however, that much of the real game of politics had moved out of the party gatherings and union halls and into less personal settings: the evening news, television commercials, direct mailings, and so on. This left me with a vague unease because I liked to have my politicians where I could see them for myself and decide first hand what I thought of them. Still, the United States is a big country, and the human business of representative democracy is bound to be imperfect.
I have spent much of my adult life studying and teaching politics, trying to figure out how campaigns and elections work. In many ways, this book is an attempt to explain what I have learned, to explain the game of electoral politics and how it has changed since Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey first ran for Congress in the 1940s. In short, it is a book about how campaigns and elections work, focusing especially on the practical business of representation, deliberation, and choice. I argue that campaigns and elections in contemporary America are best understood as campaign centered in each of these dimensions, and I do my best to