Monday, 9 June 2008

Yes, you can have a political narrative but no, you can't own it

So the US presidential election moves from the gruelling primary election campaigns to a no doubt brutal general election campaign. A lot of the analysis about the Democratic contest boils down to one question: who created Barack Obama and who destroyed “frontrunner” Hillary Clinton? Looking ahead, the underyling question is: whose narrative is winning out: Barack Obama’s or John McCain’s?

Most of the debate around “what is our narrative?” still tends to gloss over one brutal truth: we don’t control our story. Nobody controls their story. One story can be drowned out by counter-stories, especially if the latter are simpler and more deeply rooted in the audiences values or prejudices. Most importantly, it is the political audiences who decide their brand perception of any politician or party. Whether it’s Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems, the voters decide how they perceive us. Their brand perception is set when they think we have(n’t) satisfied their wishes or needs.

Those perceptions are influenced by a number of factors, including media coverage. That’s what makes a new study of the US primary elections by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University especially interesting. For the third time, they are examining the “master narratives” about the candidates’ character: personality, history, leadership, and appeal. The master narratives are important. The notion that Al Gore tended to lie and exaggerate or that George Bush was a compassionate conservative proved to be powerful messages. They shaped how the press covered the 2000 race and possibly influenced the outcome.

The study suggests that Senator Obama has not an especially easy ride, nor Senator Clinton a much tougher one, from the media:

"From January 1, just before the Iowa caucuses, through March 9, following the Texas and Ohio contests, the height of the primary season, the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.

"The trajectory of the coverage, however, began to turn against Obama, and did so well before questions surfaced about his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Shortly after Clinton criticized the media for being soft on Obama during a debate, the narrative about him began to turn more skeptical—and indeed became more negative than the coverage of Clinton herself. What’s more, an additional analysis of more general campaign topics suggests the Obama narrative became even more negative later in March, April and May."

Still, Senator Obama succeeded in projecting his desired narrative:

"The dominant personal narratives for Obama were ones he tried hardest to project, a sign that he largely succeeded in controlling his media message, particularly early on. The most common of all was the notion that he represents hope and change. This was followed by the idea that he is a charismatic leader and powerful communicator. Obama has also succeeded in getting substantial coverage that refutes one of his greatest possible vulnerabilities, the idea that his appeal is too narrow or limited to blacks and elites. These three impressions permeated the coverage of his candidacy. "

There was a catch though -- and we’ll hear a lot more about it over the coming months.
"The most prominent negative theme in the coverage about Obama was the claim that he is inexperienced."

Hillary Clinton got much or her desired narrative across too:

"Clinton had just as much success as Obama in projecting one of her most important themes in the media, the idea that she is prepared to lead the country on “Day One.” She has also had substantial success in rebutting the idea that she is difficult to like or is cold or distant, and much of that rebuttal came directly from journalists offering the rebuttal."

But her campaign had one big failing:

"The most prominent negative theme about Clinton was the idea that she represents the politics of the past."

Perhaps she faced an insurmountable obstacle as well:

"With Hillary Clinton . . . the public seemed to have developed opinions about her that ran counter to the media coverage, perhaps based on a pre-existing negative disposition to her that unfolded over the course of the campaign. "

I have previously blogged about the “two John McCains”. Sure enough:

"For McCain, one master narrative stands out above all in the coverage—that he is not a true or reliable conservative. More than five in 10 of all the assertions studied about McCain conveyed that idea, about six times as many as the number of assertions rebutting it. While this narrative—not conservative enough—might have been a problem for him in the primary race, it is harder to evaluate its implications for the general election. If McCain is seen as a maverick, someone not tied to President Bush, it will likely enhance his standing among independents and moderate swing Democrats. Yet lack of conservative credentials could also dampen turnout among some of the GOP base."

Now for the big question: in the Obama / McCain contest, when it comes to the voters, who’s winning the battle of the narratives? The answer is, neither of them.

"The analysis suggests that both Obama and McCain are heading into the general election battle with less control over their personal messages than they might like. In many ways, the coverage of the campaign has been dominated by a series of small storylines or boomlets of coverage that so far have raised unresolved questions but not yet framed an overall storyline—Obama’s friendships and core ideology, the meaning of his promise of change, McCain’s core ideology, his relationship with lobbyists, and a looming battle, largely quiet during the primaries, over the direction of the conduct of the war in Iraq. "
Now, hang on to your seat and watch the narratives and counter-stories fly.
[Thanks to Jafapete for the reference to this study.]


sunny said...

Hi Neil, I'd like to get in touch with you about something. Could you please drop me an email?
sunnyh AT liberalconspiracy DOT org


GoodLiberal said...