Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Defining the narrative

Perhaps the most important task in a political campaign - indeed, in any public relations effort - is to "define the narrative." Once you have successfully defined the narrative, and the media and commentators have bought into it, the victory is pretty much in hand.

It's not, however, easy to do, especially for a Republican in Oregon where there are significant institutional obstacles. There's no formula. It's hard to know ahead of time which message will catch on and define what the race is all about.

As I watched the debate last night and thought about it afterward, I realized that Ron Saxton has defined the narrative in this campaign. It is his version of what the race is about, his version of Kulongoski's performance as governor, his version of what is wrong with the state that has been accepted and has set the terms of the race.

That is why I think Ron will win.

Remember the 1992 presidential race? Bill Clinton won because he got to define the narrative and the media bought into it. President Bush 41 was toast, because he was on the defensive from the start. The narrative then was that we were in the "worst economy in 50 years." Remember Carville's phrase: "It's the economy, stupid."

Clinton's campaign defined the narrative, and even though it wasn't really true (the economy was in recovery well before the election, and by the time Clinton took office, GNP growth was almost robust) the die had been cast. The media played along. Every piece of economic news that supported the narrative was on the front page. Items that contradicted it were generally ignored.

In this governor race, it hasn't been clear to me up until now who was winning the battle for the narrative. It's easy to see what each side wants the narritive to be, but it was not yet apparent which one was catching on.

For Ron Saxton, the narrative is "Kulongoski has failed and everybody knows it."

For Kulongoski, it is "Ron Saxton is an elitist."

It wasn't until last night that I saw clear evidence that Ron's narrative has won out. I thought Ron won the debate, but that is almost secondary to what I saw play out in the debate. Remember some of the questions? They implicitly supported Ron's narrative:

"Governor, why are you having such a hard time getting Democrats to support you?"
"Governor, your base is holding its nose to vote for you"
"Governor, does it concern you that newspapers have endorsed Ron?"

Ron, for his part, hammered away at this theme at every opportunity, reinforcing the narrative. Which is exactly what he needed to do, and is why I think the debate swung in his favor.

But what happened last night is far more important than who won or lost the boxing match. It was a watershed moment, a point in this campaign that the question of whose narrative defines the terms of the race was settled.

It was broadcast statewide, and ballots go out Friday. The timing couldn't have been better. I don't want to sound overconfident, but I really like the way this feels.

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