The 2020 campaign is fully under-way. Democrats and even a few Republicans have announced campaigns and exploratory committees, and campaign narratives are beginning to emerge.
Campaign narratives are central to how candidates engage with the public. They provide a framework for understanding developments because the public, once having internalized a narrative, can sort facts and new developments on their own. The narratives that emerge around campaigns are driven by the candidates themselves, but it’s those stories that take root in the public mind, are confirmed by the crucible experience of the campaign, and harden in voters’ minds that ultimately decide elections.
- In 2004: the dominant narrative was about fear.
- In 2008: the dominant narrative was about hope.
- In 2016: the dominant narrative was about a corrupt system.
- In 2020: ?
I don’t know that I fully understood the power of campaign narratives until I worked for John Kerry in 2004. I can recall, vividly, after Kerry became the presumptive nominee, President Bush gave a speech where he said Kerry was a flip-flopper. He warned that in the face of a formidable terrorist threat, America needed someone resolute and firm. The explicit contrast being that John Kerry couldn’t be trusted with America’s security.
And that is the basic story that the Bush campaign ran on for the rest of 2004. It wasn’t true, but it was savagely disciplined political messaging. When then-Senator Kerry said he was for the funding of the Iraq War before he was against it—a late night turn of phrase that the candidate knew was problematic—the president’s allegations about Senator Kerry seemed to be confirmed.
In 2016, candidate Trump railed against a system he described as rigged and alleged that his opponent was criminal. When Wikileaks released emails that seemed to confirm rot at the core of the Democratic Party, his story was confirmed.
So as we head toward 2020, I’m mindful of the way the president—who has been a candidate for reelection since 2017—has been talking in broad strokes, particularly about socialism. At first, I thought it was odd that the president would state in his State of the Union address, “Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
But then Trump doubled down on socialism during a speech at Florida International University this past week. After a lengthy denunciation of the evils of socialism he concluded with: “And to those who would try to impose socialism on the United States, we again deliver a very simple message: America will never be a socialist country. We are born free and we will stay free, now and forever.”
In case it wasn’t obvious, the president is planning to brand Democrats and their proposals as, you guessed it, “socialist.” The way Democrats respond will be important. They have to avoid a “Yes-you-are-no-I’m-not” strategy. It will fail. You have to fight story with another story.
My old friend Sean Bell framed it right on Twitter: Republicans sell a scarcity narrative (if you’re winning, I’m losing). Democrats need a story that is built around abundance (if we help you win, we all win).
President Obama essentially adopted this approach in 2008 when he said that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. But what Sean was talking about doesn’t rely merely on “good hearts,” but on clear-eyed self-interest—and those are not mutually exclusive approaches. You can do both and the public can fill in its own details if that narrative is well crafted.
It’s too early to say whether any of the growing number of candidates in the Democratic field will adopt this approach, but I can say with great confidence that the 2020 election is going to be won by the candidate with the narrative that most resonates with the American public. Whoever sets the dominant narrative will win.