There are two broad categories of campaign messages: Stories and lists. The list message is the easiest to pull off, and usually the least effective. Put the candidate on a stump, or before a camera, and rattle it off: Less taxes, more growth, less government, more healthcare, less deficit, bigger army, less crime, better education. You know the drill. All good things to all good people. The idea is that if voters listen long enough, they will surely hear what they want to hear. Find their pleasure point, get their vote.
The second kind of campaign message is a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a hero and a villain. And it has a moral. The idea is less about hitting pleasure points, than raising hopes, channeling frustration and offering a promise. The list, of course, can make its way into the story, but the story cannot just be the list. It must be bigger. Epic. A fight between the past and the future. Good and evil. Prosperity and decline.
In 2008, Barack Obama mastered the story message, out-narrating the primary and then the general election, first against list-loving Hillary Clinton and then against a befuddled John McCain. The Obama story—Hope! Change! Aspiration!—became the very Obama brand. It was what people voted for.
In 2008, meanwhile, Mitt Romney mastered the list message. Just take a look at any of the old stump speeches from 2007 and early 2008, when Romney was still trying to become the Republican nominee by being all things to all people—a “conservative’s conservative,” he said at the time, while also claiming to have worked well with Ted Kennedy. He had talking points on everything, health care, taxes, abortion, gays, education, Iraq, etc., and he always somehow squeezed them into a 25 minute address. For some of his list items, he even had PowerPoints, a.k.a. sublists. Romney offered his lists relentlessly. He didn’t win. He didn’t really even come close.
But this time, for the moment at least, everything has reversed. The new and improved Romney travels the country not with a list, but with a story. “This is an election not to replace a President but to save a vision of America. It’s a choice between two destinies,” he said a few weeks back in New Hampshire. “This will be a campaign about the soul of America, about American greatness. I’m confident that Americans won’t settle for an excuse that ‘it could be worse.’ ” In Romney’s new story, he is a proven business wiz battling a liberal optimist in over his head.
If this arc sounds familiar, that’s because it’s just a few steps removed from Obama’s winning 2008 story. It is about hope for an American future that seems to be slipping away. Just make some substitutions. Replace the war in Iraq with the economy. Replace health care reform with getting deficits under control. Replace the villain George W. Bush with the villain Barack Obama. And then tell the people that the country is in danger, and there is a bright shining hero, full of confidence and smarts, who is ready to save the day. Mitt Romney wants to be that guy. He will never inspire people the way Obama did. But he can at least make them believe he can get the job done.
The irony here, of course, is that for the moment, Barack Obama doesn’t have a story to tell. As Romney points out, “could be worse” won’t cut it. And the list of Obama’s accomplishments—repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; health care reform; Wall Street reform; student loan reform; green energy investment, etc.—is not going to cut it either. Of course, the campaign is still young. Obama has plenty of time to lay out his storyline. If Romney is the nominee, it will no doubt posit him as the villain, a rich financier who benefited from a rigged game that rewards the puppet-masters while laying off workers. Obama will play the hero, fighting valiantly to protect the little guy against a rigged game dominated by Republican congressman and Wall Street henchman. It will posit two visions of the future: Obama’s vision of rebuilding the country with investment, and a Republican vision of austerity that falls hardest on Main Street. The script has already been written by Obama’s advisers in Chicago and at the White House.
But the difference in 2012 is that Obama’s storyline will not stand alone. If Romney wins the nomination, the President will face a narrative far more potent than anything Obama’s opponents came up with in 2007 and 2008.