Category Election

Framing to Win: The 2016 Election

One of the great anxieties running through the Democratic Party is a concern that the candidate who wins the nomination will doom the party to in the general.

For backers of Clinton, a Sanders nomination would trap the election in an “enemy within” frame: the Republicans will spend all their time convincing voters that Sanders is a Communist totalitarian who wants to destroy America and throw everyone in concentration camps. They tried it on Obama, they’ll try it on Sanders. But this time it would work: they spend hundreds of millions telling people Sanders is worse than Stalin and Mao combined–he loses, Trump or Cruz wins. That’s the fear from the Hillary camp.

For Backers of Sanders, the fear is a little different.

They believe a Hillary nomination would trap the election in an “anything but the establishment” frame: the Republicans will realize how much their angry populism turns out voters and spend all their time and money casting Hillary Clinton as the face of do-nothing, weak, anti-Christian, anti-American exceptionalism, entrenched government get-rich-for-myself politics. Trump and Cruz have been successful with this frame in the primary season–even if Rubio manages to beat them, they will have the populist scripts in place. They will hurl it at Clinton until the whole country thinks she is the reason America is coming up short–she loses, Trump or Cruz wins. That’s the fear from the Sanders camp.

So, who is correct? What is the best frame to win the 2016 election?

The answer, I believe, is playing out in both primaries: populism.

The GOP primary race has shown that populism is what moves conservative voters right now. Jeb Bush, heir apparent to the throne, can barely get any traction despite his mountains of money. Why? Because his quiet reasoned expertise sounds dull by comparison. He has not inspired voters to see a larger vision and embrace his proposals as  the sweeping change needed to right the ship. Both Cruz and Trump have been able to channel the populist frame: Trump pushing xenophobic chauvinism, Cruz pushing ardent religious militarism. Both have worked. Rubio is clinging to their wings–barely–by picking and choosing from Trump and Cruz populism.

The Dem race has shown that populism with an emphasis on confronting and correcting economic inequalities has generated far more energy and enthusiasm than a narrative that wraps job experience in tempered identity politics. Clinton is neither pushing a passionate frame to break the glass ceiling for women–a potentially very powerful form of populism–nor is she rallying the public to a specific foreign or domestic policy vision–despite having a deep range of possibilities in her arsenal. Her policy proposals are the most specific and her credentials are the most convincing, but she has not charged the atmosphere with any soaring vision. Instead of hope, she is promising overwhelming competence.

Take away Clinton’s front-loaded advantage of super delegates and she is, arguably, behind Sanders considerably because of the enthusiasm gap opened up by a Sanders campaign pushing economic populism–in particular, a vision of economic justice that focuses on the robber barons of big finance.

Sanders has elicited voter anger and responded with compassion and hope. And that has given him an advantage in the early war of position.

What does this mean?

It means that populism in various forms has proven effective in both party nominations. Given that, if one party nominates a candidate who is anti-populist to compete against a populist–chances are the populist will win.

For it to be a fair contest, Democrats must not only nominate a populist candidate, but must get out in front with the winning populist message–one about economic justice, rather than barring the gates from the invading hordes.

Hypothetically, could Clinton tack to a populist message that she could then take to the general election to win? Maybe. Whether that is possible, however, depends on whether or not Clinton is capable of seeing success in the general at the end of some road other than a “turn to the center”–the classic idea of a winning strategy lodged like a seed in the minds of 1990s Democrats.

Remember, Al Gore used this strategy successfully–he ran in the primary on competence and experience, then turned to a more populist tone in his campaign against George W. Bush (which he won, technically, using that strategy–even though the court awarded the White House to Bush).  Clinton could do the same, if she ended up as the nominee.

But it seems unlikely she would. If Clinton beats Sanders for the nomination, she will likely be convinced that she did so because her frame of competence and experience was the best. A Sanders nomination, by contrast, would take a strong belief in a populist message to compete against the GOP populist message. No doubt Sanders would face many challenges–chief among them: getting out in front of the “commmie” swift boating no doubt being prepared for him right now.

In the end, a populist frame wins. And Democrats would be wise to see that–and to control it, before the GOP controls it and the executive branch.



Endgame Optimism: Advantage Obama

With less than a week to go, this close election comes down to a tug of war between big narratives, where the pulling is done by the Obama and Romney closing teams. In the last election, team Obama had a vast network of volunteers marching door-to-door on the logic that undecided voters tend to be convinced by an actual encounter with a human being. This was contrasted by the GOP strategy of trying to sway voters with a minimum of 3 robocall “contacts” in the last 72 hours.  Ultimately, though, what these closing teams are pushing–either through recorded calls or a knock at the front door–is a closing argument.

What are those closing arguments?

It is easy to get lost in the media maelstrom at this point.  Too much time watching cable TV would convince anyone this is an election about what really happened in Benghazi versus whether or not Mitt Romney will admit that he wants to de-fund FEMA. In fact, neither of those cable news topics are the closing arguments of this election.

Both closing arguments have a spoken and unspoken aspect.  It is important to consider both because it helps us to see why this election is so close–why last-minute voting decisions are leaning in one direction or the other.

Romney’s unspoken argument is: Obama wastes money.  There are many, many, ways Romney has tried to invoke this argument, many spoken arguments that all support this one overarching unspoken big story.

In attempt to connect with voters, Romney has argued that Obama has spent huge amounts of federal revenue–and yet (so Romney’s argument goes), the economy has gotten worse at every step (which is a lie, but…). For people worried about healthcare, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money on healthcare reform.  For people skeptical about climate change, Romney has said Obama has wasted money investing in green tech startups.  For people worried about their manufacturing jobs, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money helping companies outsource jobs to China.

Voters have heard Romney in different ways.  Some have heard him say that Obama is wasting money, meaning wasting time (i.e., I need help now, Obama is wasting time by spending money on things that have not helped me).  Others have heard Romney say that Obama is wasting their money, specifically (i.e., I am doing fine, but want to be doing better, Obama has spent my taxes on things I do not support).  There are ugly versions of all these, invoking race, gender, fear of foreigners, resentment towards urban dwellers, and so forth.

Given his unspoken big argument and his many ways of invoking it, Romney has–curiously–chosen a closing argument that spreads fear of Obama wasting money and in collusion with foreigners.  Romney’s misinformation campaign about various aspects of the auto industry abandoning Ohio to move all manufacturing to China is an all-in closing argument that attempts to tie an image of a spendthrift president so out of control that he has tossed his hat in with America’s biggest foreign economic challenger.

If I had to paraphrase Romney’s closing argument in one sentence it would be something like this: Obama’s spending is so out of control it has become treasonous.

It’s outrageous, it stands on mountain of misinformation, but it is Romney’s end game narrative and it is persuading enough people to keep the race close.

Obama’s unspoken argument at the end of the election has been: Our approach is working, continue to stand with us.

Interestingly, in order to invoke this big argument, the Obama campaign has used smaller stories about the ways Romney would derail the recovery and the ways Romney’s approach to the economy would not have worked in the first place.  If you are concerned about a manufacturing job, the Obama campaign has reached out by showing how destructive Romney’s past at Bain has been to working communities.  If your main concern is access to healthcare, the Obama administration has demonstrated how devastating it would be if Romney were allowed to repeal Obamacare.  If your main concern is covering family expenses, the Obama campaign has emphasized how much Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy at the expense of the Middle Class.  These arguments, too, have had racial, gendered, and ethnic variations.

In particular, the Obama campaign has emphasized how out of touch the Romney campaign is with the important role women play in the economy.

Not surprisingly, given that Ohio is again a key battleground state, the Obama closing argument has emphasized how callous and destructive Romney’s economic policies would be to working families–the “Let Detroit go Bankrupt” meme.  It is a logic choice, and it has worked.

Why is Obama’s closing narrative better than Romney’s”

This is a very subjective reading, but my sense is that Romney is weaker in the end because he has chosen to emphasize pessimism in an election where people are looking for optimism.

Where Obama is going around telling people that he believes in the capacity of the American spirit, the value of American manufacturing, the strength of our communities, and so forth–Romney is going around spinning conspiracy theories based on a nefarious side of President Obama that only exists in Mitt Romney’s ads and robocalls.

For voters who are paralyzed by fear already, Romney’s approach will work.  But for voters sincerely still mulling over their options–of which there are far more than most of us allow–I suspect Obama’s optimism at the end is working better.

And this is where Obama’s approach to Sandy has fit in well with the closing phase of the election.

From a narrative standpoint, hurricane Sandy allowed President Obama to set a positive tone in the final stretch of the campaign.  Yes, Romney lied about Chrysler.  Yes, the amount of mudslinging has been unprecedented.  But in a time of crisis, Americans pull together, stand arm in arm, and truly believe that we can get rise from a crisis stronger than we were before.

And there is President Obama as the symbol of that narrative.

Do not get confused, here: the vast majority of voters are no longer being pushed in one direction or another by the closing arguments in the election.  May people simply reject the President’s leadership after Sandy as opportunism.  But those voters decided months, if not years ago that they were voting for Mitt Romney.  The challenge is to see this last week from the perspective of that small, but important pocket of voters who are still weighing their options.

Ultimately, then, I give the advantage to Obama in the final week.  I believe the swing state aggregate polling will show a solid advantage for Obama by Monday and that the big story going into election morning will be that the Obama campaign has managed to pull within the margin of error in Florida.

Optimism in uncertain times makes the difference in the end.

The Drowning Man

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a man drowning: arms flailing wildly, desperate gasps for breath, the struggle to climb out of the water as if it were a pile of blankets, the cold indifference of the water as it reaches up to pull the head down again and again. OK–keep that image in your head as you open your eyes and read this article about Mitt Romney trying yet again to claim that his position on the auto industry bailout was that government should offer help:

Mitt’s Dilemma: More He Stumps, More He Slumps

With polls now showing a steady trend in favor of the President, the election narrative will undoubtedly converge on a talk of why Romney’s debate bump did not seem to close the deal for him.  This is a dangerous time for Democrats because the reality oft the polling trend does not match the reality what actually happens in the final stretch.  Depending on who you ask, the GOP final push of robocalls & PAC ads has the ability to drive key districts by 3, 5 or even 6 points in the final 72 hours.  A lead is not a lead for Obama unless it can outlast the Karl Rove blitz.

But still, it is worth looking at Mitt Romney’s situation and asking why he is moving away from victory, rather than towards it, again.

Simplest observations are the best, in this case: the more Romney stumps, the less voters like him.   With nothing left but the grind of the campaign trail, Romney is now trapped in the situation that sunk him in the primaries and in the first leg of the race against Obama.

To see this better, it may be helpful to break the candidate’s job in the election into three kinds of narrative tasks: stumping (speeches, fundraisers, media spots, etc.), pageantry (conventions, dinners, etc.), and debates.

Of these three categories, everyone always claims Obama is a great speaker, but what they really mean is he excels at pageantry.  Obama is very good as a speaker in Conventions and gala fundraisers.  At stumping, Obama has been solid, but not great.  For most of the campaign, he has not shown enough fire on campaign stops and his media spots, in particular, are often bland. His last two debates have been solid, but nobody is going to teach a class on debating by pulling out Obama as a role model.

Romney is just the opposite.  His debate performances have been an oddly effective in the contemporary, media hype environment that defines much of this election. On stage with Obama, Romney’s twitchy, uncomfortable public persona found a home and his rapid-change of positions had the impact of throwing his opponent of his game (at first).  At the other two narrative tasks, however, Romney has been atrocious–possible the worst ever. The GOP convention, this year, was a comedy of errors and missteps.  And that brings us to Romney’s absurd inability to give a stump speech.

For some reason, Romney has decided that he is supposed to look off-the-cuff and spontaneous, rather than scripted, on the stump–that, somehow, this makes him look “authentic.”

In fact, Romney’s attempts to speak off the cuff on the campaign trail have not produced that desired authenticity for him even once.  Instead, it has elicited a string of weird blurbs from Romney that seem to come from either a pocket of Dada word association deep in his subconscious (think “trees are just the right height”) or racism (“Who let the dogs out.”) or just plain contempt for humanity (“47 percent”).

I actually think at this stage that Romney’s handlers are more afraid of what might happen when he goes on the stump than Palin’s people were at this same stage of the game last time out.  They probably send him up there, hold their breath, and silently pray that Mitt will not throw the whole thing in the toilet by blurting out some ridiculous sound bite.

Well, the pageantry and the debates are over.  All that’s left is the stump.

In other words, it may not just be that Romney’s debate aura has faded, but also that the 10,000 pound anvil of his stumping style is again starting to bear down on his polling trend, particularly in the swing states where he is gracing those votes with the majority of his time.

For those of you keeping score, make note of the next time you hear a news spot or see a headline discussing Romney giving an inspiring or even strong speech in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, or Florida.  Then, balance those instances against the number of media spots that either directly or indirectly draw attention to how poorly Romney does on the stump.  Therein lies the trend that will never be picked up by any one poll in particular, but is crucial for Romney in the home stretch.

The more he stumps, the more he slumps–that is Mitt’s dilemma.  And it’s a pickle.

Debates Work Differently For Each Ticket

As I get ready along with the rest of TV viewing America to endure the last of these 2012 Presidential debates (please…no more), one recurrent point comes to mind about how this particular exercise works and does not work for the different candidates.

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