Over the coming months pundits will slice and dice polling data, census information and the unemployment numbers of soccer mums to see whether President Obama has a clear path to victory. While I agree it’s important to understand the electoral maths, and it appears that the 2012 map will be smaller for the Obama camp than 2008, the data is irrelevant without the story.
The path is the narrative.
Just how does a campaign create a narrative? Well one way to do it, if you like to lose, is through data. Facts and figures are great; unless that’s all you give people. How often have you seen people inspired to tell their neighbours to vote for someone after a riveting speech about the inner workings of the GDP? Other than my former Finance professor I think the answer is never.
Political Scientist Michael Jones, who studies narrative in politics said it well:
“[Some politicians] are stuck in this Enlightenment reasoning kind of thing, thinking that if you take the facts to people about a particular policy it will be enough… It’s this idea that you just present better information and you get better policy outcomes.”
But it doesn’t quite work that way. You need to engage people, you need characters, a plot and a moral or a solution to the problem.
Most importantly you need to emotionally connect with people.
Think back to Obama 08. The emotion was natural; the narrative was obvious. People were engaged and the solution was a new direction – change. This is what puts states in play; not simply demographics and data.
Everything needs to flow from this. If your narrative is weak, it will be defined for you. And as the president’s narrative has eroded, the Republicans have seen success in the narrative of a “failed” administration.
Why has the narrative eroded?
Well, the trouble is that Democrats have been into data a lot lately. We like to tell stories in terms of facts and figures and easily forget that people are behind those stats. We are losing the emotional connection with why people voted for us in 2008.
But no need to panic, the path for the president’s reelection is still wide open. No Republican contender has been able to emotionally connect with anyone outside of their immediate family. And quite frankly, they haven’t been able to coalesce around anything other than birth certificates and the evils of public radio.
Republicans have left a significant opening and it’s time for Democrats to fill this void. The president, the Party and surrogates all need to be speaking in a unified voice. They need to be framing this debate in an emotionally compelling way – explaining to the voters why they deserve another term.
Without an emotional narrative, you are left with Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004 and even McCain in 2008; fighting the mathematical war to put you over the top. When your narrative is emotionally bereft you’ll do desperate things (like select Sarah Palin); anything to disrupt a winning narrative.
This shows the strength of narrative. It shifts electoral maths and throws out all data-driven assumptions.
Want a clear path to 270 electoral votes? Tell a story that resonates; create an emotional narrative that guides your path. In 2012 the path won’t simply be through demographic shifts, poll numbers and the opinions of soccer mums, but through the better narrative.
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