When Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina dropped out of the race it was a sign of the inevitable, but not for the reasons one might at first think. The same powerful force at work in their defeat is also at work in the rise of Bernie Sanders and the sliding of Marco Rubio--and Hillary Clinton, who is also falling victim to it, would be wise to take heed.
I am talking about the fundamental force that drives both American populism and America's global cultural influence--story. Candidates and campaign managers that know how to tell a good story gain traction. Those that don't, struggle, and leave wide openings for others to make headway against them.
Successful campaigns tell stories that voters can participate in. It is not unlike a Hollywood movie: something is out of place in the world. The candidate sets out to set things right. They begin working for change. This stirs up opposition. The battle is joined. They suffer setbacks and are tested to the depths of their being. They find new courage and insight, and with voters' help, they succeed.
The most insightful political advisors begin with this principle and work from the ground up. Why are you running? What do you want to accomplish? What makes you uniquely qualified to do it? The trick is finding the cause that the candidate believes in and that also intersects with voters, so the candidate becomes the messenger for change in voters' lives. Because in the end, what moves voters is the emotion in a story, just as it has from the days cave dwellers first passed along critical survival information around a campfire and talked of their hopes for the future. The campaign story is not about the candidates' personal qualities; ie electing the first woman president, or having the most experience. Those are factors, but the campaign story is about a cause outside of the candidates, what they want to achieve if elected and are fighting for even now. This well-articulated campaign story is what is currently lacking in the campaigns that are having a harder time.
One need look no further than the campaign slogans to see who understand this. Campaign slogans are the distilled embodiment of the campaign's message, the one thing that we want voters to take away as a handle on the entire campaign. Consider the slogan of the 2008 Obama campaign: "Change we can believe in." It tells a story with three elements. "Change" is what every story is about. "We can" embraces voters and draws them into the story. "Believe in" suggests integrity, earnestness, and optimism. The entire campaign is almost always symptomatically reflected in the thought processes behind the slogan.
On the Republican side, when we consider the slogans, the candidates' issues immediately jump out:
Carson: Heal + Inspire + Revive
Christie: Telling it Like it Is
Cruz: Reigniting the Promise of America
Fiorina: New Possibilities. Real Leadership.
Kasich: K for US
Rubio: A New American Century
Trump: Make America Great Again!
Bush's slogan says nothing beyond emphatically asserting his first name, suggesting a lack of purpose in his campaign beyond entitlement that is completely at odds with an otherwise thoughtful man. Carson's is obtuse and intellectual, stated as a mathematical formula. Christie's and Fiorina's were both full of corporate-style bravado but said little beyond bluster, while Kasich's is opaque and too cute for prime time. The only candidates who are telling voters stories about why they should be elected are Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, though Rubio's is weak, conceptual, and ill-defined. Between Cruz and Trump, Trump has the stronger and more emotional narrative. And so it is generally true for the overall campaigns that these slogans distill.
On the Democratic side we see the following:
Clinton: Hillary for America
Sanders: A Future to Believe In
Here, Clinton's static, self-referential message isn't telling a story that connects with voters' lives in a meaningful way, and much of Sanders' rise can be attributed to the fact that he is. This lack of a story in the campaign is portrayed by Clinton's aides as her "rational message," and by some polls as her failing to connect as well emotionally with voters. If that's true, it's not because Clinton is somehow not personally relatable. Voters will connect deeply and passionately even with a grumpy old socialist if he tells them a story that intersects with their lives. On the stump, Sanders speaks not about himself, but about voters' lives, with passionate conviction.
This is where the role of a campaign story becomes pivotal. It's not enough to have the most experience. That's a "rational" reason, but it leaves voters open to hearing a more compelling story (which is, in part, how Bill Clinton defeated the more experienced George H.W. Bush). It's not enough to run as a woman to crack what Clinton has called "the highest and hardest glass ceiling," because that is a personal quality that doesn't speak to what she wants to accomplish once she is in office that voters really care about and, more importantly, that she really cares about. Why is she running? What does she want to accomplish? What makes her uniquely qualified to do it? Clinton needs some story help, because even if she beats Sanders without telling a strong story, she'll be facing a strong story told by Trump, Cruz, or possibly Rubio.
The old saw in politics applies: voters don't elect you for what you've done, they elect you for what you want to do. Change, the fundamental moving force behind story, is also the moving force that gives meaning to life, and candidates would be wise not to lose sight of it.