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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why ‘Narrative’ Matters

Ever felt clueless when the pundits carry on about a campaign’s or candidate’s “narrative?” Well, help is on the way, in the form of Paul Waldman’s American Prospect article “The Power of the Campaign Narrative.” Waldman explains the thing with some concrete examples, and, turns out it actually is a helpful concept:

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.

According to Waldman, incumbents use the ‘narrative’ a little differently:

…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.

One can think of exceptions. Was Nixon’s campaign narrative really all that great? And Waldman’s citing the Bush 2000 campaign is not such a good example for his argument, considering Gore got over a half-million more popular votes. But, on the whole, it does seem like the winners of various presidential campaigns tended to have a more interesting story.
Of course, everyone and every campaign has a story, and some are more inspiring than others. But candidates do need to learn how to tell their stories in the most compelling way. The narrative may not be everything to a campaign, or even the most important thing, but Waldman does show how a good one can provide an advantage.

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