Who isn’t running for President? The Democratic Party has twenty-three presidential candidates who announced their bid to the party’s nomination.
It is still early to predict which Democratic hopeful will emerge as the front-runner, even after the first debate. The media is framing the campaigns as a horse-race. But the race to 2020 is not a race, but rather a marathon. More often than not, debates are to confirm what we already know about a candidate. However, the primary debates this summer will introduce America to lesser-known candidates. It is also an opportunity for candidates to start framing their story right, as the road to 2020 is going to be treacherous.
In 1957, professor of history and political science William G. Carlton predicted that “the primaries allow the politician an opportunity to become a “name.” (…) the time is fast approaching if indeed it has not already arrived when a politician cannot hope to be President or Vice President without first becoming a celebrity.”
And this holds. The evolution of media created new politicians and new political rhetoric. In the first campaigns, information slowly made its way across the country. News on who won the election could take months till it reaches the electorate. In the 1920s, when radio became a popular medium for campaigning, candidates could no longer repeat their speeches as speechwriting became more valuable for an expanding audience. But once television entered households, politicians not only worried about sounding charismatic but also about looking charismatic. Internet technologies made political campaigns more strategic and data-driven. As such, Democrats need to learn to use social media to create interactive and shareable moments with their support base. Candidates do not have to rely on traditional media; they are their storytelling machines.
Carlton also predicted the future of the political candidate where a politician’s role would stretch beyond politics. He stressed, in his 1957 article, that in a media-driven world, “If politicians do not find ways to make themselves household names, real national celebrities, presidential nominations will go to celebrities in other fields.” The media-savvy Donald Trump understood that name recognition and celebrity-status, coupled with excessive media exposure, could outweigh political experience.
Democrats such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, who are household names by way of their political reputation or media exposure, need to keep a robust and consistent storyline. Name recognition is a start to a successful campaign, but, according to Mark McKinnon, former media strategist for George W. Bush’s campaigns and host of Showtime’s The Circus, voters also want a good story to follow:
“Voters are attracted to candidates who lay out a storyline. Losing campaigns communicate unconnected streams of information, ideas, speeches…how do you tell a story? Identify a threat and/or an opportunity. Establish victims of the threat or denied opportunity. Suggest villains that impose the threat or deny the opportunity. Propose solutions. Reveal the hero.”
McKinnon is right. Winning an election requires “mastering the art of storytelling.” Donald Trump won because he is a master storyteller; he knows how to create villains, and moreover, he establishes himself as a victim and then goes on to suggest solutions to portray himself as a hero.
Trump broke through the traditional political framework the American citizens are used to. For Erving Goffman, “frameworks allow its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label” information. When the frame that people use to navigate traditions is broken, people “become spontaneously engrossed, caught up, enthralled.” The Democrats need to figure out how they can create a new rhetorical dynamic and get the electorate excited about their story. Their success is not in how many people like or share a post on social media; it depends on people responding to their message by showing up to the polls.
The ritual of communication, as James W. Carey explained, is where news is not information, but drama. People will focus on the drama rather than the truth. For example, social media services such as Twitter are a place for people to interact and take part in that drama; they interact, react, and attack opposing beliefs. The same thing goes for candidates who utilize Twitter to interact with their electorate and grow their grassroots base.
But it was clear that Candidates in 2008 and 2012 underestimated the power of Twitter. Americans had never seen a presidential nominee such as Trump post tweets that upset the news cycle. It helped him break traditional storylines as both candidate and President like no other candidate before him. President Barack Obama may have been the social media president, but President Trump challenged the framework the Obama campaign created to use Twitter as a personal agenda-setting tool to deny, deflect, and berate.
The Democratic candidate who emerges as the front-runner needs to have a message that will resonate to all voters and not just to the Democrats. All twenty-three Democratic candidates need to be consistent in their rhetoric, both online and offline. Moreover, they need to define themselves during the debates. Just remember that when Trump tweets, he’s also responding offline with the same bombastic language. Trump is fearless online, and that is why his tweets filter into the news cycle. The Democratic nominee will need to be as bold online to be seen and heard offline.
Besides, Trump’s lack of political experience opened doors for many other political candidates who may not have national political experience. Take, for example, Pete Buttigieg, who is challenging presidential stereotypes. Better known as Mayor Pete, he is 37 years-old, gay, a Rhode Scholar, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and also speaks eight languages. Buttigieg announced his presidency on April 14, 2019. He uses social media to engage with his audience. Right now, his primary source of social media energy comes from his husband, Chasten Buttigieg who shares the behind-the-scenes of campaigning and uses humor to do so. Buttigieg’s social media campaign creates shareable moments and is bold in telling his story. Moreover, he never misses a media opportunity, including an appearance on FOX News.
In an interview with The New York Times, Linguist George Lakoff said that Buttigieg knows how to break down ideas for voters in a transparent manner. Other candidates with more experience may have more depth to their rhetoric, but to gain credibility, Buttigieg has to be sharp-cut when explaining his policies.
As Buttiegieg focuses on his story, Senator Elizabeth Warren is making a bold choice to roll out policy proposals early on; and this conveys confidence. While most candidates are still at the level of introducing themselves, Warren is gaining momentum. The New York Times says Warren is “making a personal and political wager that audiences care more about policy savvy than captivating oration.” This can be seen as a return to the traditional political story framework. Her repetitious and consistent messaging helped her in the first debate. She needs no introduction.
However, the media has a bad habit of framing their own stories for candidates. CBS News Chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett noticed that in the first debate, NBC moderators asked Elizabeth Warren five questions within the first 40 minutes. This signaled to the audience that Warren was the most important person on stage. Garrett warned the media to “not be in the position of acting like theater critics…voters will tell us what they thought over time.”
One way to find out what voters thought is to look at the candidate’s search rankings in Google Trends. Earlier in June before the first debate, the top five searched-for candidates were Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. By the end of June, the top five searched-for candidates were Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. If the media learned anything from the 2016 campaign, it is that voters and media perceive candidates differently. In 2016, the media and the Democratic Party underestimated Trump’s message and missed what voters thought was important in their own stories.
Democrats have to master their storytelling techniques to counteract the Trump story machine. Otherwise, Republicans will dominate the stage. Both Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have already defined themselves, and Trump understands this; He reveals himself with no flip-flopping of rhetoric or behavior. Democrats’ should speak clearly, consciously, and consistently. Their road for a 2020 victory isn’t going to be easy, but if they get their stories straight, they could bring back that ritual of political communication where respectful rhetoric outweighs destructive intents.
Janet Johnson, Ph.D. teaches communication and journalism courses. She is finishing a book about the media’s influence on presidential campaign rhetoric. You can follow her on Twitter: @janetnews as well as listen to her podcast Tea with Dr. J, where she discusses timely topics about her research.