Jonah Sachs

Contributed by Jonah Sachs

September 06, 2012

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Story Wars: Obama v. Romney

The story wars are all around us — the 2012 presidential contest is a perfect lens for examining the myths competing for our national attention, our money, and our votes. Is the highest value of our collective story... Freedom? Equality? Progress? If you look carefully, you can boil the best campaigns down to very specific story elements, and the worst disappear into a cacophony of conflicting story parts.

Over the rest of this election cycle, keep an eye out on all levels for the unmistakable elements of each campaign's guiding narratives (or lacks thereof). Feel your heartstrings being tugged? Someone's connecting to your core values. Drawn against your will to an unlikely Romney supporter? His campaign is likely using the tried-and-true Freak character type. Nodding your head as you listen to Michelle Obama? Seek out the moral behind her words.

We'll be posting our own observations as November 6th approaches, and we'd love to hear what you're seeing and what you're thinking about the stories behind both campaigns. To get your juices flowing, here's an excerpt from Winning the Story Wars about the story wars between Bush and Kerry during the 2004 campaign...and we all know how that tale ended! 

 Story Wars Illustration by Drew Beam

"It’s impossible to provide one simple explanation for the outcome of an entire presidential election. But the news analysis in 2004 certainly tried, and if you read that analysis now, you’ll see there was something close to consensus on the matter. Going into the campaign, George W. Bush was struggling on the issues. When he had entered office in 2000, about one in ten Americans thought the economy was in trouble. That number had risen to more than 50 percent by the time the 2004 election came around. And the war in Iraq had gone off the rails, stirring up a deep dissatisfaction among voters. The fact that Bush won was explained almost universally in this way: he found a way to connect with America. Kerry could or would not.

A few days after the election, a frustrated James Carville complained: “They produce a narrative. We produce a litany. They say, ‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say, ‘We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.’ And so there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.”

Carville’s words reflect the frustration of pretty much every Democrat at the time. Kerry pitched in a way that was all about Kerry. He listed his issues and his credentials. Then waited for thunderous applause.

Here, in the first three hundred words (that’s about two minutes) of Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention—the most important speech of his life—we find a treasure trove of me-focused marketing:

“I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

“A great American novelist wrote that you can’t go home again. He could not have imagined this evening. Tonight I am home.”

About his mother: “She was my den mother when I was a Cub Scout, and she was so proud of her fifty-year pin as a Girl Scout leader. She gave me her passion for the environment.”

And about his birth: “Guess which wing of the hospital the maternity ward was in? I’m not kidding. I was born in the West Wing.”

The few we- or you-focused messages he uttered were sandwiched between, and setups for, all of these not-so-charming and not-so-relevant me-statements. Were we impressed? Maybe. Inspired? No.

Bush, on the other hand, kept his messages focused foremost on the values of the voters and a recognition of their need to see their world in tangible stories.

Here are some of the things Bush had to say in the first 350 words of his Republican National Convention speech:

“We have seen a shaken economy rise to its feet. And we have seen Americans in uniform storming mountain strongholds and charging through sandstorms and liberating millions with acts of valor that would make the men of Normandy proud.”

“Since 2001, Americans have been given hills to climb and found the strength to climb them. Now, because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below. Now, because we have faced challenges with resolve, we have historic goals within our reach and greatness in our future.”

“We will build a safer world and a more hopeful America, and nothing will hold us back.”

And when he did utter the word I, it was directed in gratitude to his audience: “I’m honored by your support, and I accept your nomination for president of the United States.”

See all those characters, conflicts, and values shining through? This is why Carville credited Bush with having a story. And by making his audience his starting point, Bush took the focus off of himself, stopped beating his chest, and made room for that story to come through. He painted a picture of a heroic nation in a struggle for a future of greatness. The substance of what he was actually saying wasn’t all that different from what Kerry was saying. But Kerry had lost track of his story..."

So far, who do you think is telling a better story? Romney or Obama?