Campaigning in Poetry

I have just completed a draft of a paper about narratives in the 2015 Canadian and 2016 US Presidential elections, to be presented at the Canadian Political Science Association meetings later this spring. One of the key results is that it illustrates what Mario Cuomo meant when he spoke about campaigning in poetry.

My methodology involved analyzing all the ads posted on YouTube by the major party candidates: 40 for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), 43 for the New Democratic Party (NDP), 52 for the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), 96 for the Trump campaign, and 226 for the Clinton campaign. The ads were analyzed not just for their political messaging, but also as mini-movies, in which I coded features such as narrating voice, music, color palette, and figural motion and wardrobe for the party leaders.

Of the five campaigns, three – the Canadian Conservatives, Trump, and Clinton – were overwhelmingly negative, putting their focus on attacking their opponents, and using narrative conventions such as ominous music and dark colors to reinforce their message. The NDP was only somewhat more positive than the other three. By far the most positive campaign – and the most successful – was that of the LPC and its leader Justin Trudeau.

Here are a few numbers to show you what I mean. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Clinton’s and Trump’s ads attacked their opponent as a scoundrel. Two-thirds of the CPC’s ads were attacks, primarily focusing on Justin Trudeau’s naivete. In contrast, one-third of the LPC ads were positive appeals focusing on Justin Trudeau’s strengths and another 40 percent showed Trudeau, speaking to the camera in closeup, criticizing the mistaken policies of his opponents, primarily the Harper Government.

In sixty-two percent of the LPC ads, the narrating voice was Justin Trudeau’s. For the four other parties, the leaders narrated between 23 and 39 percent of the ads. In effect, Trudeau became the face and voice of the Liberal brand.

Sixty-eight percent of LPC ads used upbeat music, in contrast to 7 percent for the CPC, 14 percent for Trump, and 18 percent for Clinton.

Figural motion refers to whether the individual who is the focus of the ad is standing still or moving enough that the camera must move to follow her. The idea is that an individual who is in motion generates interest on the part of the viewer. In 78 percent of the ads in which she was filmed, Clinton stood in one place. Trump was static in 96 percent of the ads in which he was filmed. (Methodological note: I am not counting as motion his frequent chopping gestures with his right hand while speaking). In contrast, Trudeau was moving in 72 percent of the ads in which he was filmed.

Clinton and Trump always dressed formally, she in a pantsuit and he in a dark suit and white shirt, almost always with tie. Trudeau used a wide variety of clothing choices, some formal (suit, shirt, and tie), some semi-formal (dress shirt, with sleeves unrolled or rolled, collar buttoned or open, with or without a tie), and some completely informal (t-shirt and jeans).

Putting it all together, the LPC was able to meld a variety of narrative elements into a coherent whole: frequent use of what I call the heroic fable, either by itself or together with respectful critiques of mistaken public policy on the part of the Harper Government; emphasis on Trudeau’s youth and energy; and ads that combined closeups of a leader in motion, enthusiastic crowds, brightly-lit indoor or outdoor settings, and upbeat music.

The confrontation between Trudeau and Harper (and to a lesser extent Mulcair) can be seen as an instance of a political contest between a young, enthusiastic, even charismatic, challenger, and an aging and weary incumbent. The 1972 movie The Candidate, starring a young Robert Redford, is the classic fictional version of such a contest. At the federal level, Canadian instantiations include Pierre Trudeau vs. Robert Stanfield (1968), Brian Mulroney vs. John Turner (1994), Stephen Harper vs. Paul Martin (2004, 2006), and finally Justin Trudeau vs. Stephen Harper (2015). US instantiations include John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon (1960), Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford (1976), Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush (1992), and Barack Obama vs. John McCain (2008).

The second part of Mario Cuomo’s aphorism with which I began this post is “you govern in prose.” Certainly Justin Trudeau is finding that out now. Also, the young charismatic challenger versus aging weary incumbent is a meme that works only once for any politician. Depending on whom the Conservatives and NDP throw up as their new leaders, Trudeau will have to revise his campaign narrative. But that’s in the future. In this post, I want to recognize the approach that worked so well for Justin Trudeau and the LCP and describe all its moving parts.

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