We’re deep into the silly season – also known as the race for the White House – and the number of candidates has reduced itself from the two rugby teams of January to the ping-pong match vs. the old soldier of today.
What kind of stories are they telling? First and foremost, they’re all saying "vote for me!", but they’re craftily crafting their messages to speak to the world-view of people who they think are most likely to vote for them.
The heated ping-pong match on the Democratic side of the fence is interesting to watch, because both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have to hit hard, yet also have to ensure that they don’t hit so hard that they alienate a piece of their base.
Obama has an advantage on the stump, in person, since he’s a better, more stirring speaker than Clinton. Clinton has always seemed to be speaking from behind a wall of "good girl" – the studious policy wonk who is now trying to connect with people’s hearts. She has, however, built a bit more credibility after serving a full term in the Senate and then managing to get re-elected.
Obama is positioning himself as the agent of change. That part of his story seems to be connecting most powerfully with younger voters, much of whose lives have been spent under the leadership of the Bush and Clinton families. He’s also using his story effectively to connect with the parts of the Democratic Party that identify themselves as "We’re Not Republicans". That tag will mobilize a small portion of Democrats, but not enough to win a presidential election. (John Kerry told that story in ’04 – that sure worked out well for him, didn’t it?)
The real power of Obama’s story is in his position as the first serious black candidate for President. His story, and his very multi-culti background, help him to connect with a wide array of people, and seem to resonate particularly with the under-30 voter. If he wins, that connection will be the tipping point.
The outsider story that Obama tells is in stark contrast to the "voice of experienced leadership" story that Clinton is telling. She’s got passionate support from the parts of the Democratic Party that feel like they’ve been wandering in the wilderness since the end of Bill Clinton’s second term. Bill Clinton has, at times, been a liability during her campaign, though – South Carolina springs to mind – and he’s carrying a lot of baggage. Who can look at him and not think of either cigars or Monica Lewinsky? At least for a moment?
Hillary also has not been able to mobilize all Democratic women on her behalf. She has a number of women supporters, yet she hasn’t seen the wholesale support that she likely expected when she started her run. This might be the lingering after-effects of her posture during the 1992 campaign, when she seemed to look down on cookie-baking. Her image has softened in the last decade, yet she’s still working to overcome some backlash from the mommy-track.
Obama and Clinton are duking it out, getting close to the gone-too-far line almost daily. Clinton is trying to paint Obama as a word-stealing poser, a man who can’t craft his own story without taking words out of the mouths of others. Obama threads his story with references to 20th century solutions to 21st century problems – a pointed smack at the occupants of the White House at the end of the last century.
On the Democratic side, my money’s on the fresher story – Obama has built considerable momentum, but the race for the nomination isn’t over yet. Next Tuesday’s primaries in Texas and Ohio will put a nail in the coffin of someone’s candidacy – stay tuned for how that story winds up.
On the Republican side, John McCain’s bus – straight talk or not – keeps rolling. McCain’s story connects strongly with moderate Republicans, and he’s morphed his story enough that he’s created buy-in with the conservatives that didn’t support him in 2000. His straight talk line is a bit played because of that story-morphing, but it’s worked well enough to knock off the early front-runner, Mitt Romney, and he now has the field with no real competition.
McCain can count on mobilizing the social conservatives, the Iraq hawks, Glenn Beck fans, and die-hard Republicans. Current poll stats show that McCain vs. Obama, Obama holds the advantage; McCain vs. Clinton, McCain is ahead. At least today. Of course, since the election isn’t until NOVEMBER…there’s still a lot of story to be told.
There are many banana peels littered across the political path (paging Ms. Lewinsky, there’s a party waiting for you in the cigar bar). And enough time left for many of them to be stepped on, by somebody. Stay tuned…
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.