Political columnists Germond and Witcover have pegged their 1980 election postmortem on the seductive premise that ""even in the era of the new political technology, electing a president was not, and could not be, a science."" Their narrative is cannily structured around turning points in the long slog from the pre-campaign summer of '79 (when Carter tried to blame his failings on American ""malaise"") to the last, ""It's all over, Mr. President"" poll. They are vigorous writers, shrewd commentators, and very much in the know. So the book is undiminished as an open line to the campaign hews and whys by the fact that the obverse of their thesis is equally true: if the new technology--""the world of polls and media markets and mass psychology""--did not determine the results of the election, it did crucially affect the way individuals and events were perceived at each of the featured turning points. Thus, Carter didn't come down from his Camp David retreat and actually say the word ""malaise"" (""Cadell insists that he hadn't used it either""); but it stuck, and hurt. As a candidate, Kennedy should have had an answer to Roger Mudd's ""Why do you want to be president?""; but it was the exposure of his bumbling on national TV--and the special circumstances (superbly elaborated here)--that made him suddenly not ""invincible."" The Ford vice-presidential boom may have been foredoomed; but it was Walter Cronkite's use of the term ""co-presidency,"" without a demurrer from Ford, that killed it. On the other hand, one must grant Germond and Witcover their two intractable realities: the hostage crisis and Carter's abysmal record. The first spawned the ""Rose Garden strategy"" and also suspicion of crisis-manipulation by the Carter circle (an anticipatory ""Reagan watch"" was set up, worldwide, on Iran-related money and materiel movements); the second dictated a focus on Reagan's unfitness for office. When Carter's image as ""a nice, honest man"" finally gave way (to a sense of his ""meanness"") and Reagan came across, in their debate, as moderate and reasonable (""There you go again"") and ""at least acceptably presidential,"" the die was cast. After The Selling of the President et al., the Germond-and-Witcover stress on non-manipulable actuality and unforeseeable accidents is altogether understandable: it's not only the news of the book, it's the very news most of us want to hear. But their scrupulous attention to every factor is the book's greatest strength.