Soccer moms and swing state politics: The missing narratives

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On the eve of the final presidential debate the race has come down to three predictable points–developing a compelling narrative to move soccer moms in the swing states to vote for Romney or Obama. None of this should come as a surprise.

Politics is about the power of telling a compelling narrative about yourself, why you are running for office, what you hope to accomplish, and what you think the world looks like. It is your vision of yourself and the world that you seek to sell to others.

Everyone loves a good story or narrative. We all love a good movie, television show, joke, and perhaps a book if it has a good plot and story.

Politics is no different. To be successful in politics, candidates need a narrative. For most candidates, simply explaining why they are running for office is not enough. A good political narrative has several components: (1) it explains why the candidate is running for us; (2) it is a narrative describing who the candidate is; (3) it must describe the candidate’s vision of the world; and (4) it must describe what the candidate wants to accomplish if elected; it is their platform.

Narratives are important. Back in 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush cast off the importance of narratives by stating that he did not need the “vision thing” to get reelected. He may not have had an explicit vision, but he certainly had a narrative. He had a narrative about winning the Cold War, creating a kinder and gentler society; one guided by a thousand points of light. Bush successfully convinced many Americans about a way to think about the world and him; they believed that by voting for him, they would get a particular type of government that would secure a specific view of the world without new taxes. Unfortunately for him, he did raise taxes. His story turned out to be a lie for some, and he lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

In 2008 Obama ran with a powerful narrative–change. Change is a compelling narrative, especially when you are the opposition. Gerald Pomper, one of my former political science professors at Rutgers University, once pointed out that Obama’s use of change as a slogan was similar to those of Eisenhower and Kennedy. Change seems to be the narrative to use when wanting to out incumbents or when voters are weary of the status quo.

The generational narrative of 2008 about change, then, captured age, technology, being cool, and being connected to Americans. Obama and the Democrats had a great narrative, but then 2010 happened. In a year where the economy still stunk, how did Obama defend his stimulus bill, financial reform, and health care changes? The situation was clear: they had no good narrative. I could not find a single compelling narrative for the Democrats in 2010 to defend what they had done.

But then a new narrative emerged–“It could have been worse” (had we not acted). This narrative grew out of comments from Obama and Tim Geithner, who talked about all the things they had done, such as bailing out the banks, GM, and so on. Had these steps not been taken, said Obama and Geithner, things would have been worse. I do not know about you, but for me “It could have been worse” hardly inspires voters or wins over swing voters. Still, that was their narrative, and Democrats lost big when Republicans ran on the narrative change in 2010.

The basic problem Obama has had in this campaign is finding a narrative, vision, or argument for four more years. Romney is correctly criticizing Obama for his lack of vision for the future. Obama‘s “forward” does not offer it, and throughout the debates and even his speech at the DNC one is still looking to hear the argument of Obama’s for why he deserves four more years and what he hopes to do. Simply saying “I am not Romney” may not be enough. What the 2012 campaign is offering is one candidate lacking a narrative versus another whose narrative of change is vacuous, disingenuous, or simply flawed. However, the power of Romney’s narrative is identical to Reagan’s “Are you better off now” and Obama seems unable to articulate a Reaganesque “Morning in America” response.

The missing narrative gets to the second factor dominating the closing days of the presidential election–appealing to soccer moms. I have consistently argued for years that soccer moms are the single most influential swing voter in American politics. Women are the majority of the electorate now and vote in greater percentages than men. Women are more likely to be Democrats than men. Many former GOP women have left that party because of the issues the Republicans push now. These women are not yet willing to call themselves Democrats and thus they are swing voters who vote on issues different from men. Women were a critical constituency to Obama’s 2008 win but they stayed home in 2010. How they vote will be critical in 2012.

While Democrats have enjoyed a gender gap for years, this year Obama appeared to be opening up a huge lead among women. But then it began to shrink. This is the main reason for the tightening in the polls since the first debate. Soccer moms are shifting–not in large numbers, but enough to make a difference. This is why Democrats are seizing on Romney’s “Binders of women” slip. It is an effort to portray Romney as out of touch with women. The reality is that the “binders” comment was probably simply a miss-statement that means nothing. Yet Romney seemed like he did not get it when it comes to gender discrimination issues. That was the real gaffe. He failed to understand women still face workplace discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, being paid 76% that of men, glass ceilings, and other problems of being single parents or double standards. Yet the problem for Obama is that he too has failed to describe an agenda appealing to women, and his failure to craft a narrative about the economy, student loans, education, and a host of other matters means that some soccer moms are unsure about who to vote for.

Finally, the problem of narratives and appealing to soccer moms comes down yet again to the swing states. As it had been for the last several election cycles, the entire race comes down to about ten states that are swing and which will determine who gets to 270 electoral votes. Thus, the race is simple–finding a narrative to move a handful of swing soccer moms in a handful of swing states.

Neither candidate seems overly appealing to the soccer mom. Neither offers a narrative or message that addresses their concerns or needs. Despite the fact that women are the majority of the electorate American politics seems fixed in a masculine voice telling a story that is either absent or unappealing.