As much as we may think of the first two quadrants as the “good” ones, and the last two as negative and destructive, retelling your opponent’s story to stoke voters’ negative emotions can be essential to an effective — and ethical — political campaign. In 2008, for example, the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, pulled ahead of Obama for the first time at the beginning of September, in part because Obama sought to run almost entirely in one quadrant of the grid — telling his own story and rarely mentioning the name of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Although that might seem virtuous, it would probably have seemed less so if McCain had won the election and continued many of the policies that destroyed the economy. Not until Obama and his allies went negative and began painting his opponent as “McSame as Bush” did Obama pull back ahead, where he’d stay through Election Day.
In the 2012 race, the big themes and stories of the campaign have already become clear. In these final eight weeks of campaigning and advertising, and during the presidential and vice presidential debates, we will see both campaigns relentlessly hammering home their central stories in the message grid:
Obama on Obama
Over the past few months, as the Occupy movement brought debates over inequality and “the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent” into the national conversation, Obama has recast himself as a populist, emphasizing that he stands with the middle class, whereas Romney stands on it. This is a smart strategy. It frames the election as a choice, not a referendum on an economy that remains bleak nearly four years into Obama’s presidency. It also brings him back into what has been the mainstream of Democratic values ever since Franklin Roosevelt remade the Democrats as the party of working- and middle-class families. And it capitalizes on the populist rage that has energized the tea party movement since 2010, an anger that Democrats allowed Republicans to own.
But Obama has to walk a tightrope in telling this story, one he didn’t face in 2008, when in many ways the very fact of his candidacy was the story. Although he wants to emphasize the progress we’ve made since the Great Recession bequeathed to him by Bush and the Republicans, most Americans remain stressed to the breaking point and pessimistic after years of struggle. They aren’t buying any message suggesting that happy days are here again. With unemployment standing stubbornly above 8 percent, this is not a year when an incumbent wants to run on his economic achievements. The best summary Obama has of his accomplishments — domestic and international — is one that sticks: General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead. That says it all.
Romney on Romney
While Obama has probably done as well he can with a relatively weak story about himself, Romney has proved far worse at conveying a positive story, even when he has one to tell. The story he wants to tell is that, as a successful businessman, he gets how the economy works and how to create jobs; that unlike Obama, who has had nearly four years to repair a failing economy, Romney understands how to get America working again. This is a strong story to offer voters desperate to hear that someone knows how to put an end to their daily struggles.