Winning Through Storytelling

One of the key takeaways from the recent election results for U.S. Congress and the state Legislature in New York has gone largely unnoticed: the simple fact that legislative campaigns built around a narrative beat what I call “list campaigns.”

Narrative-based campaigns are built around projecting a thematic story. Alternatively, list campaigns are centered on particular issue stances, banging home the differences between candidates as if laying floor planks while constructing a home. 

Narrative campaigns usually beat list campaigns for three interrelated reasons: 1) Voters are quite busy and don’t have time to keep score; 2) The public’s cynicism toward politics often renders list campaigns unpersuasive; and 3) Narrative campaigns leave voters better able to remember the rationale for supporting one candidate over another.

Simply put, narrative campaigns enhance voters’ retention of the information their candidates want them to internalize. Remember also that our politics emerges from our culture, not vice versa. Through the extraordinary influence of movies, TV shows and books, Americans are weaned on stories, and many of our strongest memories are fashioned through storytelling.

Narrative campaigns need not lack substance. Effective narrative campaigns strive for clarity, rather than mere simplicity. In truth, a narrative campaign takes the position planks of a list campaign and presents them in a package that is easy for voters to understand and remember. The end goal of a good narrative campaign is for voters to nod in agreement.

This year the Republicans, in legislative races both nationally and here in New York, proved more adept at crafting campaign narratives than the Democrats, who stuck to list campaigns. My simple advice to Democrats going forward is twofold: First, channel your inner James Carville and focus on using rapid response to at once promote and defend a campaign’s narrative. Second, follow the enduring value of the David Garth playbook: Be first up on TV with ads that define the race on your terms.

Surprisingly, the empirical value of linking a narrative to early TV ads goes against “the book” of campaign management, which urges holding TV dollars until the end of a campaign. Yet Garth’s approach almost always beats this conventional wisdom: Carey in 1974, Koch in 1977, Giuliani in 1993, Bloomberg in 2001—and, most recently, de Blasio in 2013, with his “Dante” ad.

In this year’s legislative races, the melding of narrative with early TV ads proved devastatingly effective for Republicans, particularly upstate, where more dispersed and older populations ate up the regional animus the GOP served in generous portions. The Democrats’ campaigns did not respond rapidly to potent charges, such as the humorous ads from the GOP’s North Country congressional candidate Elise Stefanik branding her opponent Aaron Woolf (who was battling a carpetbagger image) as Brooklyn’s congressman, or the ads that pounded incumbent Democrats such as State Sens. Ted O’Brien in Monroe County and Cecilia Tkaczyk in the Upper Hudson/Mohawk Valley, warning that if re-elected they would send upstate dollars down to New York City.

Democratic campaigns largely chose to absorb the blows and respond later with closing TV ad campaigns. One notable exception was Carrie Woerner’s creative TV buy, where the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee’s positive spots amid all the other negative ads from the surrounding congressional and state Senate races allowed the Democrats to steal an Assembly seat in an exurban upstate district no one would have thought possible to win on Labor Day.

In the future, narrative campaigns should become absolutely essential to Democrats in legislative races, especially in low-turnout, off-year elections when down-ballot Dems don’t have a presidential campaign to lure young, minority and single women voters to the polls. This guidance is not meant to either attack or Monday morning quarterback any particular campaign.  It is merely intended to remind future candidates that narrative campaigns trump list campaigns. The Republicans seem to understand this fact. Consequently, internalizing that lesson could lead to a new deal for Democrats down the road, in the hard to win seats upstate and in the suburbs.


Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.