When They Go Low, We Go High

Michelle Obama coined this personal motto in her speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, referring to how she and her husband chose to respond to those “who question [his] citizenship and his faith” and to “the hateful language [we] hear on TV.” In the new book on public sector narrative I’m working on, I’ve chosen this motto as the title of the chapter on election narratives. The chapter will be long, likely 15,000 words, so it is hard to summarize in a blog post. But I’ll try.

In the context of election narratives, by going low, I mean negative political advertising, or in our conceptual framework, advertising about one’s opponents that instantiates the ironic or tragic fables. By going high, I mean positive political advertising that instantiates the heroic or occasionally sacrificial fables. I’m particularly interested in election advertising because ads are mini-movies that use the same cinematographic techniques as feature movies.

The two elections the chapter discusses are the 2015 Canadian federal election and the 2016 US presidential election. To build a database, research assistants and I coded all 135 ads posted on YouTube by the three major Canadian political parties and 226 posted by the official Clinton campaign and its major PAC and 96 by the Trump campaign and its major PAC. Because YouTube is the major online repository for video, these databases arguably incorporate all or at least most of the broadcast ads created by these campaigns (social media not so much).

Every election campaign both goes high – developing an heroic narrative about the relationship between its leader and the electorate – and goes low – developing ironic or tragic narratives about the relationship between the leader(s) of the opposing party(ies) and the electorate. The important question is which arguments they use to create both narratives, and what balance they choose between going high and going low.

In the Canadian campaign, my key observation is that, when the Conservatives on balance went low, the Liberals, on balance, went high. The Conservatives’ “just visiting” attack ads destroyed Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in 2011 but their “just not ready” and “just in over his head” attacks did no damage to Justin Trudeau in 2015. The NDP got stuck somewhere in the middle, and their attacks on incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper ultimately benefited Justin Trudeau, not Thomas Mulcair. We tabulated YouTube viewcounts as a measure of effectiveness, and the Liberals (10 million views) far surpassed the NDP (2.5 million) and the Conservatives (1.9 million).

Though I am not intending to offer a complete explanation of why the Liberals won, I think that one key factor was that, after almost a decade of continual attack advertising embodied in the Conservatives’ permanent election campaign, many voters had had enough. They saw this negativity as fundamentally inconsistent with basic Canadian values such as fairness and optimism.

In the US campaign, on balance both Clinton and Trump went low. The data on the election ads are fascinating, in that they show that, despite their sharply different positions on the issues, numerous characteristics (favouring the ironic narrative over the heroic to the same extent, choice of narrating voice, use of music, lighting, camera cuts, formality of the candidates’ wardrobes and absence of physical motion, to name a few) of their ads were similar, sometimes identical.

Again, I am not intending to offer a complete explanation of why Trump defeated Clinton. But I think the hyper-partisanship and culture wars of recent years prepared the ground for this type of campaign. In addition, Trump and Clinton kept making mistakes that fed into each other’s attack narratives. On Trump’s part, numerous verbal assaults (“they’re bringing drugs,” “blood coming out of her wherever,” “I can’t re-mem-ber”), unprepared and inarticulate debate performances, and the Access Hollywood tape. On Clinton’s part, “basket of deplorables,” near-fainting at the 9-11 ceremony, the hacked DNC emails, and her use of a personal email server while Secretary of State. Each of these mistakes gave credence to the opponent’s ironic narrative.

The last, and I think, decisive factor was what Clinton herself called “the Comey effect,” FBI Director James Comey’s announcement on October 28 that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails. There is considerable evidence supporting this argument including focus groups and voter intention surveys. Our evidence comes from YouTube viewcounts. Up until the end of October, Clinton was ahead 51-49 in total viewcount. In the last week of the campaign, Trump’s newly-released ads had a total viewcount of 4,100,000, Clinton’s just over 1,000,000. Clinton’s most popular ad, dealing with Trump’s sexism and predation, had a viewcount of 363,000. A Trump ad dealing with the Comey investigation had a viewcount of 1.5 million. Another, dealing with her so-called failures at the State Department, 1.1 million. These ads were the fourth and fifth most popular of Trump’s entire campaign, but they achieved those viewcounts in less than a week.

There is a lot more to say, but this is a blog, not the chapter itself.


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