The Narratives of November

All across the Commentariat, I’m hearing the same message: “The pregame warm-up is over.” The Obama vs. Romney show-down has finally arrived, so it’s time to get serious about the November election.

It’s fascinating, though, to see what “getting serious” means to different people. For some, it means getting down to the nuts and bolts of the electoral college. We actually hold 51 presidential elections – don’t forget D.C. – or even 56, once you realize that Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote for each congressional district plus two for the winner of the statewide election.

People who get electoral-college-serious are already drawing their swing-state maps, like CNN’s above, where they give Obama 196 EVs, Romney 159, and leave 183 up for grabs in 15 swing states. If you want to try your own scenarios, go to 270towin.com. (Here’s mine: Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina only go to Obama in another landslide. Ditto for Romney taking Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. So I start with Obama 242, Romney 206 and eight swing states worth 90. I think it will ultimately come down to Ohio and Virginia.)

Other people get demographic-serious. These folks focus on the Latino vote, the gender gap, and the turnout of Obama’s “new voters” (mainly blacks and young people) who showed up in 2008 but not in 2010.

You can also get characteristic-serious. People’s voting choices might still be in flux, but Obama is more “likeable” than Romney (56%–27% in a recent poll), and is also seen as “more honest and trustworthy” (44%–33%).

Here’s the way I’m looking at the race: April head-to-head polls are fun, but a lot can happen before November. Unless you’re a professional campaign strategist, it’s also too early to get electoral-college-serious. That’s a game to play in October, when it merges with demographic-seriousness and you start talking about the Hispanic vote in Colorado or how the urban/rural split is playing out in Virginia.

Characteristic-seriousness is only part of the story. Nobody liked or trusted Richard Nixon, but in 1972 Tricky Dick had one of the biggest landslides ever. Nate Silver says favorability predicts the outcome in October, but not so well in April. (Maybe we talk ourselves into liking a candidate after we decide to vote for him.)

So instead, I’m getting narrative-serious. To me, this phase of the campaign is about fleshing out four stories: Why you should vote

  • for Obama
  • against Obama
  • for Romney
  • against Romney.

Come November, one of those stories is going to sound a lot more believable than the other three. Whoever benefits from that story is going to win.

The candidates’ characteristics matter, but only as the building-blocks of their stories. So Mitt Romney’s message can’t be: “You should vote for me because I’m a regular guy like you.” That loses, because we’ve all already decided we don’t believe it.

Losing campaigns are characterized by images that crystalize the unbelievability of some part of the candidate’s story: Mike Dukakis in a tank. John Kerry hunting geese. Mitt Romney trying to look like a regular guy is a similar image waiting to happen.

This didn't help.

But Romney doesn’t have to be a regular guy to win. FDR wasn’t and neither was JFK. Neither, for that matter, is Obama. So Romney could have a winning message like this: “This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.” People who don’t like Mitt at all might believe that story and vote for him.

Who says aristocrats can't win?

Vote for Romney. The Romney smart-executive message depends on a couple of things. The more the economy appears to need saving, the better it works. Plus, Romney has to look and sound like that guy. He needs to win the debates, and he needs some economic proposals that seem new.

Obama’s allies can throw sand in Romney’s gears in two ways: (1) By pointing out that Romney wasn’t a turn-around executive, he was a vulture capitalist who profited from deals that destroyed jobs. (2) By identifying Romney’s don’t-tax-the-rich, don’t-regulate-BP policies with the Bush administration. If Romney’s so smart about the economy, why does he sound just like George W. Bush?

Vote for Obama. Obama needs to portray himself as a reasonable guy who did well under difficult conditions, and who has kept his eye on the country’s long-term goals. He needs to contrast how the economy is now (middling) with how it was on Inauguration Day (in free fall).

No matter what the Supreme Court does with it, he needs to defend Obamacare as the only progress recent presidents have made on reforming our broken healthcare system. Make Romney (or the Court) own all the problems of the pre-Obamacare system.

Obama can also point to foreign policy successes that have no parallel on Romney’s resume: We’re not fighting in Iraq any more. We’re winding down Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden is dead.

Romney’s allies can counter this by exploiting any bad news and blaming it on Obama. They need voters to judge the economy on an absolute scale rather than a relative one. Who cares how things were under Bush? They’re bad now.

Vote Against Romney. You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.

A simple “he’s rich” argument won’t work, because nobody cares. Every big name in politics, Obama included, is rich by most people’s standards. But if Romney’s wealth and general stiffness can be tied to his pro-1% policies, he loses.

In the primaries, Romney interpreted every such attack as envy of his success, not resentment of his being on the wrong side. That was sufficient for a Republican audience, for whom the rich are heroes. (But even there you have to wonder what would have happened in Michigan and Ohio if Santorum had hammered economic issues rather than wandering off into Jesusland.) But he’ll have to come up with a better answer in the general election.

The Obama campaign will make sure that specific groups are reminded of the extreme positions Romney took against them when he needed right-wing support. Women will hear a lot about what Romney-supported “personhood” laws would do to contraception, and Latinos won’t be allowed to forget his self-deportation policy. These attacks will be hard to counter without feeding the Romney-will-say-anything meme.

Vote Against Obama. There are two anti-Obama messages. The one for general consumption is that he hasn’t performed well enough to deserve a second term. The economy is still bad, the deficit is high, the wars have fizzled rather than ending in victory, and Iran is still on track to get the bomb.

That all works better if there is bad news to tie it to: a new downturn, a big bankruptcy, a terrorist attack, and so on. (Karl Rove thinks Obama can be beaten on foreign policy, but it’s hard to see how that happens without some striking event.)

The second anti-Obama message needs to be carefully targeted to the white Christian population:  In Obama’s vision of America’s future, you’re not on top any more. Working-class whites in particular feel insecure and long for an imagined past. Romney needs to (subtly) cast Obama as the reason that past can’t come back.

What Works? It’s possible one campaign will just be better than the other at telling its stories. The anti-Obama story will have a ton of corporate money behind it, and that might make a difference.

But if both campaigns are competent, it’s going to come to events. If the news between now and November is neutral or positive, Obama’s stories work. But if there’s major bad news, voters may decide that Romney deserves a first chance more than Obama deserves a second.

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Comments

  • Enon  On April 23, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Lots of people in 1968 liked and trusted Richard Nixon – a September 1968 Harris poll showed 72% agreeing with the statement that Nixon was a man of “high integrity”. (Source: NYTimes)

    I was there and remember.

    Only a small number of people called him Tricky before Watergate.

    • weeklysift  On April 24, 2012 at 7:10 am

      I will have to look up numbers; you could be right. I was there also, though, and I remember “Would you buy a used car from this man?” being a line the Democrats used against Nixon in 68. The Tricky Dick nickname goes way, way back, at least to his VP years and maybe before.

      • Enon  On April 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm

        I’m not denying there was a certain number of people, mostly in the intelligentsia and chattering classes, that were calling him Tricky decades before Watergate. Wikipedia says the moniker goes back to his 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Douglas.

        I’m saying that many people did not see Nixon for who he was until Watergate (and even then he still had his defenders). After all, he did defeat Humphrey in 1968, despite the doubts about his honesty that the Democrats raised.

        I like what you’re doing with this blog & put it in my ‘daily read’ group. But “Nobody liked or trusted Richard Nixon . . .” is an overgeneralization and false. Lots of people liked and trusted Richard Nixon in 1968. He was a small town, cloth coat Republican the likes of which we don’t see anymore. Lots of people identified with him.

      • weeklysift  On April 30, 2012 at 5:49 am

        Agreed. “Nobody” was an exaggeration to make a point. More accurately, Nixon never thought he could run on his likeability and trustworthiness, and his opponents perceived it as a weak spot.

        My first political action was to hand out pamphlets for Humphrey when I had just turned 12. It was late October, when Humphrey was making the big push that turned a huge post-convention deficit into a very close election. The pamphlet had pictures of Humphrey and Muskie on it, and said “Two You Can Trust” at the top. The implication against Nixon-Agnew was clear.

  • Kim Cooper  On April 23, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    If it’s true that it’s going to come to events, the Righties will do what they can to manufacture an event. It could be a major disaster.

Trackbacks

  • By Story Logic « The Weekly Sift on April 23, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    [...] The Narratives of November.  What matters at this point in the campaign isn’t the Electoral College, favorability ratings, or head-to-head polls. It’s whether either candidate can assemble believable stories explaining why he should be president and his opponent shouldn’t. [...]

  • [...] few weeks ago in The Narratives of November, I talked about the stories that each campaign is trying to establish in the minds of voters. [...]

  • By Believe in America, Mitt « The Weekly Sift on July 16, 2012 at 9:05 am

    [...] wrapped up the Republican nomination in April, I framed the next phase of the campaign in terms of four narratives: pro/anti-Obama and pro/anti-Romney. The anti-Romney narrative was: You should vote against Romney [...]

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  • […] That raises the question of my own record. In April, 2012 I did my first serious look at the Obama/Romney race. I had Obama leading in electoral votes 242-206, with eight swing states worth 90. In the fall, […]

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