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How to win an election: Tell a story and don’t worry about facts and policy

MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

I would be a terrible political operative. I can’t let go of the conviction that politics should be about facts and arguments. Even more demanding, I want the facts to be accurate and the arguments to be logical.

I have a clue how naïve that makes me sound, but it saddens me to acknowledge that this never has been and never will be how political campaigns work. I do my small bit to inject accurate facts and logical arguments into the discussion from my small perch as a reporter and now, more often, as an analyst or commentator or whatever the heck I am these days.

Maybe you can think of a time when facts and logic carried the day in a political matter, but at the moment, I can’t think of one.

In the age of 30-second attack ads, which may now be in the process of being replaced by tweets, it’s hard to feel good about what does matter. So, even though I don’t like the main message, I was quite impressed with a short video (if eight minutes is still considered short) that the New York Times put up this week, titled “How to Win an Election” and featuring Mark McKinnon.

McKinnon, who stars in an SHOWTIME cable series about the 2016 race called “The Circus,” is a long-time campaign genius who worked for both George W. Bush presidential campaigns, although he says in the video that he has also worked for Democrats.

I say I was impressed with it. I almost liked it, except it seemed like just another case of facts and logic losing again. In this case, the inevitable triumph of images and emotions and subliminal manipulation of the electorate is narrated by an appealing-looking 60-something who actually manages — while basically exposing the insipid heroes-and-villains narrative — to present himself as a kind of a hero too because of the unusual circumstances that, he says, led him to resign from the 2008 John McCain campaign.

Campaigning, McKinnon tells us, is storytelling. A campaign has to have a “narrative arc” that depends on either “threat or opportunity” that elicits “hope or fear.” The threat or fear comes with a victim or potential victim (which is presumably the persuadable voter to whom the story is being told) and the hope comes with a hero (obviously the candidate paying the teller of the story to present him as a hero).

If you get the narrative properly organized, McKinnon says, “it’s like a magnet and voters are like iron filings. It just pulls those voters into your orbit.”

McKinnon summarizes again at the end that “every campaign is about one of two things, fear or hope,” which is not quite the same thing as policy proposals or a record of accomplishment.

I found the little video weirdly riveting. If you can spare eight minutes, which I realize is as long as 16 commercials, enjoy:

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Dan Berg on 02/25/2016 - 10:30 am.


    Spot on as to basic nature of elections. The idea that follows is that we can’t expect elections to result in good policy. What does that say about the idea that democracy is a good method of managing things.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/25/2016 - 11:50 am.

      What does it say?

      I’m inclined to think that what it says is not very flattering. In order to work more-or-less as intended by those revered Founding Fathers and their predecessors, especially going back numerous centuries to the Greek inventors of the idea, democracy pretty much assumes that voters are reasonably well-informed. When the intent and practice of a political campaign, and nowadays, perhaps the intent and practice of the vast majority of political campaigns for national office, is misinformation (telling a story not being at all the same thing as telling the truth), the whole premise of democratic government is undermined. That it’s practiced by pretty much everyone, from every/any party or organization, doesn’t inspire optimism regarding democracy’s future as a viable and effective form of government.

      Sifting through the chaff to get to the (relatively few) kernels of truth in a “campaign-as-story” often requires significant effort and time, even for people who value their franchise more than most. That difficulty also makes the rise of demagoguery (see: 2016 presidential candidates, especially Trump, Donald) that much more common and easy. This campaign, in particular, is a useful reminder that Hitler was elected, quite legitimately, by German voters.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/25/2016 - 01:10 pm.


        One should note that ‘democracy’ and ‘demagogue’ are rooted in the Greek ‘demos’ — meaning people or mob.

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 02/26/2016 - 06:28 pm.

        The big question is understanding the limits to what the mechanics of democracy can be used to achieve. It isn’t possible for the public to be informed at all, much less well-informed, on all topics which they would need to be in order for government to manage as much as they currently do.

        A counter argument to that is the idea that we elect people with whom we generally agree to represent us to manage those things. That argument doesn’t hold water because those elected are no more capable of understanding all if the issues to the degree needed either so rely on specialists to inform their decisions. Those specialists often have ties to the groups/industries they are consulting on. Many are directly paid lobbyists. The larger the scale of government the more layers and connections are created where influence can be promoted which is outside the interests of the larger electorate and actual voting process. In other words, the larger and more complicated the function of a democratic state the less functionally democratic it becomes. The closer it becomes to a kratocracy, ochlocracy, bureaucracy or some combination of those forms.

        The fundamental problem with large scale government is not the intent of it but the fundamental physics of how it works. Nobody has ever figured out the basics on how to make large scale complex government work. It has always started to crumble when it gains a certain mass.

        A funny part of history is that one of the first actions that made modern democracy start to take hold was when Henry the 8ths adviser Thomas Cromwell used it as cover during Henry’s break with the Catholic Church. He understood that if he could manipulate parliament he could convince the population that the new church was the will of the people, not just his. So since the beginning democracy has been used as a method of manipulating citizens as much as it has been the citizens determining their own governance.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 03/02/2016 - 10:30 am.

      what Mencken said

      “Democracy is the political theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it. Good and hard.”

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/25/2016 - 12:24 pm.

    Your Perch, Eric

    I see it as: Comment Generator-in-Chief

    or perhaps: Ideology Flow Valve

    You are also somewhat akin to the Drum Major of the Harvard Marching Band.

    Whatever, you are usually provocative and always interesting.

    Thanks for keeping many synapses from fusing….well, at least those not already fused.

  3. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 02/25/2016 - 01:31 pm.


    People rarely make decisions (voting, who to marry, and so on) based on logic and facts, they make decisions based on their heart and gut. Republicans are masters at it, Democrats think they can win with logical arguments, they don’t.
    Whoever successfully appeals to the heart and gut win.
    Gore and Kerry lost being logical, Obama won appealing to hope.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/25/2016 - 02:07 pm.

    One contrast–Lincoln/Douglas debates.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/25/2016 - 09:18 pm.

      In a galaxy long ago and far away

      With much simpler demographics,
      and more limited mass media (no Fox or CNN).

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/26/2016 - 07:40 am.


        The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois:

        Ottawa on August 21
        Freeport on August 27
        Jonesboro on September 15
        Charleston on September 18
        Galesburg on October 7
        Quincy on October 13
        Alton on October 15

        The debates in Freeport, Quincy and Alton drew especially large numbers of people from neighboring states, as the issue of slavery was of monumental importance to citizens across the nation.[1][2] Newspaper coverage of the debates was intense. Major papers from Chicago sent stenographers to create complete texts of each debate, which newspapers across the United States reprinted in full, with some partisan edits. Newspapers that supported Douglas edited his speeches to remove any errors made by the stenographers and to correct grammatical errors, while they left Lincoln’s speeches in the rough form in which they had been transcribed. In the same way, pro-Lincoln papers edited Lincoln’s speeches, but left the Douglas texts as reported.

        After losing the election for Senator in Illinois, Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in a book.[3] The widespread coverage of the original debates and the subsequent popularity of the book led eventually to Lincoln’s nomination for President of the United States by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

        The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.” The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.

        Up to 15,000 people attended each session of the debate.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/26/2016 - 07:46 am.

        …..Less than a month later, on August 21, 1858, Lincoln and Douglas climbed to a wooden platform in Ottawa’s downtown to launch the series of seven debates that each hoped would propel him to election as senator in November. The music and parades of the morning and early afternoon had ended, and the political banners were put aside as Douglas rose to speak. A crowd estimated at no less than 10,000 doubled the city’s population. Pressing forward to hear, onlookers stood shoulder to shoulder in the oppressive afternoon heat. The ringing words of the seasoned debaters settled over the crowd as the breeze carried the smell of the horses, oxen, and coal-fired trains that had carried them there……

        ….Excited crowds of as many as 20,000 people greeted the debaters at six more cities over the next two months. Special trains carried passengers from hours away, some from neighboring states. Lincoln and Douglas had a national audience as well. Eastern newspapers sent reporters to cover the debates, and many thousands across the country read of the contest between the two Illinoisans…..

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/25/2016 - 03:18 pm.

    Bread and circuses

    State and local elections, at least here in Minnesota, still seem somewhat close to a participatory democracy where issues and logic still matter in elections. But the very complexity of the issues dealt with even at these smaller scales in our federalist, republican form system prevents too much citizen participation on most matters. Smaller countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have probably the maximum size countries for a participatory democracy. The US was not one even when our population was a third of what it now is during the Gilded Age, when money came to control politics and power.

    The US might be ungovernable except on a more or less imperial Roman model. If you substitute a President, elected to four year terms through a mostly bread and circus type election, for emperor, who held power by blood succession for their lives (or more typically, by appointment of the Praetorian Guard), and then compare the Roman Senate, a group of drones representing the oligarchy, with our Senate, you’re pretty close to Imperial Rome. All the Founders really added was a House of Representatives (maybe to give the plebians a voice) but then limiting the terms to every two years to make sure nothing too radical from the mob ever gained traction.

    Come to think of it, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was published in 1776. Coincidence?

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/25/2016 - 03:45 pm.

    The real voter fraud…

    When a candidate’s campaign is found to be propagating a proven untruth and thousands of voters have subsequently had their vote taken by a fraudulent means their should be consequences. My first amendment rights do not allow me to say: “Joe’s brand yogurt has rat poop in it and mine does not”. Joe has a very good shot at winning damages from me. The candidate’s lie inflicts major damage on the career of their opponent and minor damage to potentially millions of voters. Time to unleash thousands of under employed lawyers onto the political class for all those fat contingent judgments and class action voter fraud cases.

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