The Power of the Campaign Narrative

On November 4, 1979, Senator Ted Kennedy, preparing to announce his primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, sat down for an interview with Roger Mudd of CBS News. Polls showed Kennedy far ahead of the beleaguered incumbent, and many political experts at the time expected the youngest son of America's political royal family to take the mantle from his two slain brothers and charge to the White House. But when Mudd asked him a simple question -- "Senator, why do you want to be president?" -- Kennedy could not offer a simple response. His rambling, muddled answer dealt his campaign a terrible blow.

It may seem strange that someone who had made the decision to run for president couldn't sum up in a few sentences what the purpose of his candidacy was. Kennedy's problem was not that he didn't have a good reason to run -- he had plenty of them. His problem was the way he thought about that run. He thought about issues, he thought about the weaknesses of the president he was trying to supplant, he thought about the programs he wanted to institute. What he didn't construct was a story that explained his candidacy to voters and offered a narrative structure for journalists to use when reporting on him.

Look at past presidential campaigns, and you see this pattern over and over: the winner tells a coherent, appealing story, while the loser tells a bad story, or more often, no story at all.

Successful presidential candidate stories have three parts. Part one of the story describes the state of the country and its government, clearly defining what is wrong. Part two describes the place the candidate wants to take us, the better day being promised. Part three explains why the candidate is the one and only person who can deliver us from where we are to that better day.

Today, we hardly think of Jimmy Carter as a political genius. But his 1976 run for the White House offered a perfect example of an effective three-part presidential narrative. Two years after Richard Nixon's resignation, it wasn't too hard to figure out a winning message, but Carter pitched it perfectly. His ads featured him in casual dress, in pastoral scenes, as far from the corruption in Washington as one could get. He promised "a government as good as its people" and said he would never lie to the public. The pure and good American folk, embodied in him, would ride into Washington and cleanse the sins of Watergate.

Four years later, Carter's presidency was mired in the Iranian hostage crisis, oil shortages, and double-digit inflation. All these factors certainly made Ronald Reagan's job easier, but Reagan nonetheless told an extraordinarily effective story, one of American greatness waiting to be renewed. The country had been dragged down by an illness of the spirit, he argued, one that could be cured through pride, optimism, and strength. He presented himself as patriotic to a fault, standing tall against foreign enemies, optimistic, and offering reassurance that all problems could be solved with a firm hand and a strong will.

Four years later, with the economy having turned around, the country fresh from the summer Olympics in Los Angeles where Americans racked up huge victories (helped by the absence of a boycotting Soviet Union), and a broad feeling of hope and possibility, Reagan's campaign captured perfectly the prevailing spirit about where America was -- or at least where people wanted to believe it was. His ads showed soft-focus scenes of flags being raised, young couples moving into their first homes, children biking happily down the street, and buildings being raised. "It's morning again in America," said the announcer's smooth, assured voice, "and under the leadership of President Reagan our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?" (Successful incumbents use a mirror image of the three-part narrative, presenting the current good times as fragile and tenuous, threatened to be dragged down if the challenger is elected. Or as George W. Bush in effect said about John Kerry, elect my opponent and we're all going to die.)

Like Carter and Reagan, Bill Clinton understood that the three-part structure works most effectively when a candidate can define himself as the opposite of his opponent in every way. When Clinton ran in 1992 during an economic recession, he presented George H.W. Bush as the embodiment of a government that had lost touch with its people. Where Bush was patrician, Clinton was down-home; where Bush was old and hidebound, Clinton was young and dynamic; where Bush couldn't relate, Clinton felt your pain.

And George W. Bush, for all his current political troubles, understood how to construct a campaign story in three parts as well. On the campaign trail in 2000, he would raise his right hand and say, "When I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the law of the land, but I will also swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God!" Honest and devout, he would bring integrity back to the Oval Office after the Clinton impeachment. Bush also defined his "compassionate conservatism" as a path that transcended the bickering of the 1990s. "I don't have enemies to fight," he said at his 2000 convention, "and I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

Given all that has happened in the intervening seven years, those passages seem almost surreal. But at the time, Bush was carefully applying the three-part structure: he defined the problem (scandal and partisanship), he defined the solution (dignity in the Oval Office, civility and respect between the parties), and he defined himself as the vehicle to reach that solution.

And what about the losers? Anyone who can say what story John Kerry was telling in 2004 must be receiving signals from some parallel universe.

Because Al Gore felt in 2000 that he had to run from the logical story for him to tell – that he would continue the good times of the Clinton administration – he was left with no story at all. In 1996, Bob Dole said he would be "A better man for a better America," a message so vague it had no resonance, particularly since voters were pretty happy with the America they had. It isn't enough to say you'll make things better; you have to tell voters exactly what it is you want to improve and why you're the only person to do it.

The three-part narrative seems incredibly simple, so much so that it should be obvious to anyone contemplating a run for the presidency. The wonder is that so many presidential candidates fail to utilize it.

Which brings us to the current presidential contenders. With just one or two exceptions, they seem to have virtually no clue how to tell a story about themselves and their candidacies. Faced with a question like the one Roger Mudd posed to Ted Kennedy -- "Why do you want to be president?" -- they would be just as unlikely to offer a coherent answer. Next week, we'll look at just what they have to say -- and why one candidate already has an enormous leg up on the rest.

Click here to watch more presidential campaign ads featuring powerful narratives.

You may also like