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Storytelling In The News: #155

The storylines of the U.S. presidential candidates

May 19, 2004

A colleague (a Democrat) asked me yesterday an interesting question: without a storyline, does Kerry stand a chance?

What the current polls say

According to the independent Pew Research Center, the main storyline perceived by Kerry's supporters right now is not so much about Kerry but about Bush -- ABB -- "anyone but Bush".

Even so, according to the current polls, Kerry does stand more than a chance. The latest poll (Zogby, 5/16/04) shows Kerry leading Bush 47 to 42, with Nader at 3.

What swing voters are thinking

The conventional wisdom is that sitting presidents aren't defeated -- they lose. If this is true then providing someone of apparently presidential caliber as a viable alternative to the sitting president in trouble is at least a minimal storyline, and it might even be enough to win.

Peggy Noonan, a strongly Republican columnist, gives some support to this view with an insightful interview in today's Wall Street Journal with a Republican woman who voted for Bush in 2000 but is now leaning to Kerry. The woman is middle-aged, middle-class, suburban middle-of-the-roader. She says of Bush:

"He did what we hired him for. He got us through 9/11, he led us through, he got the Homeland Security Department. He cleaned out Afghanistan. Then he moved into Iraq, he fought hard. And maybe that's the job he was supposed to do. And maybe now we can let him go. Maybe Kerry's supposed to handle it the next few years. He'll get us out of Iraq as soon as possible because he's a Democrat and they don't want to be there. He didn't put us in there, so he has no personal issues in getting us out. He'll work better with other countries because he's kind of their type -- he's like Chirac, he probably kisses ladies' hands. He won't raise taxes too much, because the Republicans in Congress won't let him. He won't do anything radical, because the country won't let him. We could hire him for a few years, let him get things more stable, and then fire him. Put the Democrats in charge of the war; they don't like war. Put them in charge of the economy; Wall Street seems to bounce when they're in, funny thing."

It's obvious that both Bush and Kerry would benefit by having a stronger storyline.

Bush's storyline

For Bush the problem is the growing perception of a gap between his story -- a strong and likable president successfully promoting democracy in Iraq, and strengthening the economy through tax cuts -- and the reality as reported in the daily newspapers. Even his most ardent supporters are having a hard time seeing the consonance between Bush's story and what they read. The problem is summed up in late night jokes.

* President Bush's approval rating is now at an all-time low - even lower than Dick Cheney's pulse rate. President Bush released his new $2.4 trillion federal budget. It has two parts: smoke and mirrors. (Jay Leno)

* John Kerry has called now for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. As a response, Rumsfeld stripped Kerry naked and ran him around on a leash. (David Letterman)

The massive budget deficit and the disaster in Iraq ("a Pearl Harbor in terms of PR" says one Republican senator) constitute an affront to fundamental Republican values.

Kerry's storyline

For Kerry, the problem seems to be that that he is perceived as unknown or unlikable or both. Unlike Howard Dean, Kerry is at least trying to tell his story. His current ad campaign tries to tell the story of a wealthy war hero who has dedicated his life to public service. Whether that comes through any clearer with independents and Republicans remains to be seen.

It's implausible that Kerry's current ad campaign will do much to deal with the undercurrent of criticism that is evident in late-night jokes about him. For instance,

* Lot of people wondering if John Kerry supports gay marriages. Here's a hint ... he gets $1,000 haircuts." (Craig Kilborn)

* President Bush said John Kerry is on both sides of every issue. And Kerry replied, 'No, I'm not ... but there is some truth to that.' (Craig Kilborn)

* Kerry was here in Los Angeles. He was courting the Spanish vote by speaking Spanish. He showed people he could be boring in two languages. (Jay Leno)

What remains unknown is whether when the public gets to know Kerry better -- as they will over the coming months -- they will like him more -- or less.

Nader's storyline

To date, the candidate with the least coherent storyline is Nader, who seems intent on demonstrating that he can undermine everything for which he has worked throughout his entire life.

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