By now, the narratives the Trump and Biden campaigns are advancing have become clear.
Trump depicts himself as a bold and strong leader who has ensured the prosperity and protection of Americans in a hostile world. His achievements include legislating the tax cut, reshaping the judiciary from the top down, withdrawing the US from international agreements that are not in its interest (NAFTA, Paris Accord on Climate Change, Iran, Trans-Pacific Partnership) and establishing new and fairer ones (USMCA), and hardening its borders. Re-election would involve continuation of this important work. On the other hand, Joe Biden is weak and aging, and would be the useful idiot manipulated by the radical socialist left, which includes Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi.
In contrast, Biden depicts himself as an empathetic, honest, and evidence-respecting leader who will end the corruption, dishonesty, and racism of Trump’s presidency and achieve better results fighting the pandemic, restoring the economy, responding to climate change, and rebuilding the US’s alliances.
Both candidates have a positive narrative about themselves and a negative narrative about the other and will be attempting to strike a balance between the two. They will be using the narratives, as expressed in broadcast or targeted advertising and speeches to encourage their supporters to vote, which is critical given chronically low turnout rates in the US, and to win over undecided voters, generally considered to be a small percentage of a sharply polarized electorate.
The effectiveness of the competing narratives depends in part on how well they are expressed but each campaign has copious resources and smart content creators, so we wouldn’t expect either one to have an advantage on this score.
In my view, what is critical is what happens when the narratives confront the events that will unfold over the approximately 70 remaining days of campaigning. As the German military strategist von Moltke wrote, “no plan of operations survives first contact with the enemy.” I’m referring not only to the battle between the campaigns, but also external events that are unforeseeable.
An example would be James Comey’s announcement in the last week of the 2016 campaign that the FBI would be investigating emails between Hillary Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin found on Anthony Weiner’s computer. This unforeseen event validated Trump’s “crooked Hillary” narrative and swayed undecided voters, particularly in the crucial Midwest states.
The presidential debates – assuming they happen – are an arena of conflict that can validate or disrupt narratives. How will the conflict between a tightly scripted candidate and one who invariably wings it play out? Will Joe Biden appear doddering, as the Trump campaign predicts, or will he be focused and alert? Will Biden be able to hold Trump to account for his ever-shifting lies in a manner that press conferences cannot?
Here is an example where debates mattered. The Conservative Party of Canada consistently swift-boated Justin Trudeau’s political asset of youthfulness by posting ads from the day he was chosen Liberal Party leader arguing that he was immature and “just not ready.” Trudeau’s effective performance on stage in the 2015 campaign against two more experienced debaters (Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair) quickly disrupted that narrative. Soon Liberal ads were using “Ready” as a tag line.
In the US election, the progress of the pandemic could disrupt or validate. What will be the death toll in early November? Will the rate of infections and deaths accelerate when people move inside in cooler weather? Will schools be forced to go online and NFL football, like much of its college counterpart, be cancelled? Will a credible vaccine become available before the election? Could Drs. Fauci and Birx have an impact, through their firings, resignations, or endorsement of either candidate?
Kristin Urquiza, who spoke at the DNC, put a face on the statistic of 170,000 deaths, and providing a compelling rhetorical link between President Trump and the pandemic: “[my father’s] only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump.” I assume we will soon be seeing Ms. Urquiza in Democratic Party or PAC ads to validate their narrative about the pandemic.
Trump’s corruption is a consistent part of Biden’s narrative. Will Michael Cohen’s forthcoming book validate it with new revelations of sexual debauchery, financial malfeasance, and the exploitation of counterparties? Will more of Trump’s income tax returns be leaked?
Will opposition to Trump by high-profile Republicans continue to grow? Will George W. Bush break silence and endorse Biden?
Foreign policy provides an opportunity for Trump to validate his narrative. Will he be able to convince other Arab or Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel?
Political violence could also disrupt or validate narratives. Will violent Antifa or BLM protests validate Trump’s claim that he alone can protect the US from chaos? Will a QAnon adherent attempt to assassinate a Democratic or never-Trump Republican leader – or God forbid, succeed (like the assassination of a Labour MP days before the Brexit referendum)?
The Republican convention this week gives Trump his best opportunity to present his narrative. After that, the battle begins in earnest, and battle plans must adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Both campaigns will be shifting the balance between positive and negative messages, devising new ads to restate their basic narratives, and perhaps devising new narratives on the fly. And the outcome of the battle will be of enormous consequence not just for the US but for the rest of the world.