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Marketplace

The nest is full

Oct 11, 2019

The bookstore primaries

Tony Wagner Apr 23, 2015
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Before presidential candidates head to Iowa, New Hampshire or Chipotle, they might be found in your book store.

Looking toward the GOP primaries, Marco Rubio just released his second memoir, “American Dreams“; Ted Cruz’s “A Time for Truth” will hit shelves this summer; Rand Paul’s second book in three years is out next month; and Jeb Bush is rolling out an e-book. Last year, policy wonks scoured Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” for clues to a presidential run and an expose about her finances is making headlines ahead of its release.

But writing, selling and releasing a book takes time, even with a ghostwriter. Why is just about every presidential hopeful doing it? What good does it do so early in the election season?

“Primaries are a crazy time, and they are so different from the general election,” says D. Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science at Duke University. “So when a candidate can do anything in a primary to get a bit more media attention, a bit more evidence that they might be electable and able to beat the other side, that’s … advantageous.

Sales don’t hurt, but the political book is less a moneymaker than it is the foundation of a larger strategy, Hillygus says. As soundbites shrink, a book lets a candidate frame themselves and get out in front of any potential “dirt.” In “Dreams of My Father,” for example, a young Barack Obama discussed his drug use.

But here’s the rub: it’s not actually all that important that people read the book.

“Part of the value of the book is not the readership of the book, but the fact that you wrote it,” says Craig Allen, an associate professor of journalism at Arizona State University who has written about presidential communication throughout history. Candidates can draw on the book during speeches and debates, he says, giving them an air of thoughtfulness and credibility. Best case scenario: the candidate recaptures the success of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” which Allen says inspired many of the politicians who’ve written books since.

Even if they don’t win any Pulitzers, savvy candidates can at least go on a book tour, giving interviews and essentially holding campaign events without ceding media coverage to their opponent under equal-time requirements.

That works if candidates get out their book early enough, says Peter Hildick-Smith, head of the publishing insights firm Codex Group. That’s where the current crop of GOP candidates could run into trouble, he says, even if the message is well-crafted.

“If everybody’s got their book coming out within a month of each other, it’s very hard to get the audience’s attention,” he says. When candidates release the book early in the election cycle, “you don’t have a campaign to run [and you get] to talk to people in a more normal way instead of being on the stump. It’s that quiet conversation with Matt Lauer when people aren’t really expecting it.”

Hildick-Smith’s company worked with a candidate on one of last year’s political bestsellers. He wouldn’t say who, but he did say the book had a larger-than-expected “crossover readership” of independent voters. Part of that comes from striking the right balance between policy and personal writing, along with getting the book out early.

Of course, a candidate’s detractors can use similar tactics. The Clinton campaign is already running interference on “Clinton Cash,” which comes out May 5 and alleges that foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation lined Hillary’s pockets and influenced her policies as secretary of state.

“Clinton Cash” has potential to hurt Clinton because some major news organizations got an early look; the New York Times and Washington Post published deep investigations into the book’s claims this week. While Clinton’s campaign has a sizable headstart, her long history in politics means she’s more vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny, says UC Davis political science assistant professor Amber Boydstun.

“If you took any potential opposing Republican candidate and you put them in public service as long for as she’s been in public service, you’d probably have a book about them too,” Boydstun says. “In Clinton’s case, there’s of course going to be dirt, and I’m not sure what the dirt looks like but that could potentially not play well, especially if the media gives credence to [it].”

There’s a lot of ink spilled on all sides about candidates, but come Election Day, what impact does it really have? Duke’s Hillygus says that’s something political scientists are still puzzling out.

“A debate doesn’t have much effect, frankly. A single television ad has almost no effect… it’s all cumulative and incremental,” she says. “What becomes important is: does this book by the candidate help to create a characterization of who they are that sticks? And it’s never going to stick on its own.”

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