Four stories are at the heart of any campaign. If you understand them, you know who controls the message — and with it, perhaps the election. These stories make up what campaign strategists call the “message grid,” which has four quadrants. The first two comprise the positive stories the candidates are telling about themselves; the other two feature the negative stories each candidate is telling about the other.
In some elections, one quadrant of the grid dominates the conversation — for example, when the economy or a candidate is particularly strong or weak. Campaigns jostle for position on the grid, trying to emphasize the stories they prefer and to alter elements of the stories their opponents are effectively telling. In 2008, the stars were aligned for a new and exciting candidate to tell a story about hope and change after eight years of fear and loathing, skillfully turning his “different-ness” into an asset.
But 2012 is not 2008. This year, the stories President Obama and Mitt Romney can tell about themselves are just not that compelling. In contrast, the stories they have to tell about each other are far more powerful. As we put the theater of the conventions behind us and move into the homestretch of the campaign, that simple fact — along with the omnipresence of outside groups flush with unchecked money and unchecked facts — means we can expect the nastiest two months of attack ads in modern American history.
The stories in the first two quadrants, the positive ones the candidates tell about themselves, are usually the stuff of biography ads, warm-and-fuzzy convention videos and “humanizing” testimonials from spouses and elderly parents. These stories seek to establish a relationship with voters, leaving them with the sense that the candidate shares their values, understands people like them and is the right person for the times.
The best of these stories weave together a candidate’s life and values with the lives and values of everyday people. In 1992, when Americans were anxious about a faltering economy, Bill Clinton stepped in as the “man from Hope.” His life story — a poor boy from a small town in Arkansas whose father died in a car accident before he was born but who made good despite adversity — suggested that anyone could make it in America.
Yet stories in this positive space don’t have to be so personal to be effective. Ronald Reagan never focused strongly on his life history. But the tale his reelection campaign told in his “Morning in America” ad — of a nation that was moving again, strong again and proud again — was one of the most powerful in recent memory. Like Clinton’s story, it provided the kind of hope and enthusiasm that captivates an electorate, and the positive emotion that propels a campaign forward.
The stories in the remaining two quadrants in the grid are less inspiring but just as important. They reinforce or supply voters’ anxieties or misgivings about an opposing candidate, motivators that can be just as potent as enthusiasm and hope. We often associate these negative stories with the underbelly of politics — as when associates of George H.W. Bush used racial politics against Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which told the story of a convicted black murderer who raped a white woman while out of prison on a furlough program approved by Dukakis.