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Constructing the Perfect Democratic Candidate

With plenty of candidates still in the presidential marathon race, uncertainty is the only certainty. And with the only significant polling shifts of late being Elizabeth Warren starting to pull ahead and support for impeaching President Donald Trump popping 20 points over just a few days (though time will tell if this is a meaningful, long-term measure of public opinion), the Democratic contenders are all still searching for that perfect formula that can lock up the nomination.

But is there such a thing as the perfect candidate? It depends on how you look at it. One way the notion of perfection emerges is if we identify the most appealing moments from all the contenders and imagine that the ultimate nominee finds a way to adopt them.

“Traditionally, nominees selected VPs based on geography—sort of why Bush chose Quayle. In the last 25 years, this has shifted. Clinton didn’t choose Gore to make the play for Tennessee—it was to accentuate the theme of youth and change,” explains Matt Robison, former chief of staff to congressman Paul Hodes (D) of New Hampshire and creator of the political blog A More Perfect Union. “John Kerry was made of wood, but he had wisdom; John Edwards brought the delight and wonder. And in 2008 Obama didn’t need Biden for Delaware—it was about balancing a perceived weakness in his story.”

In other words, Obama offered ample delight and wonder, but he lacked the wisdom Biden could bring to the ticket. And we should expect to see the same VP-selection tactic from the nominee for 2020. But depending on who is designated to take on Trump, it might be wise for the candidate to look at his or her own storytelling shortcomings as well, and shore up the deficiencies by emulating the strong performances by defeated rivals throughout the campaign. Along that line of thinking, a picture of the perfect candidate emerges when we look at—and combine—the Democratic candidates’ performances that scored, ahem, bigly, in our Strategic Storytelling Index.

The Index records and analyzes the reactions of a mix of Democratic, Republican and independent voters to the candidates’ use of wisdom, wonder and delight in their storytelling. Below are five key moments across the campaign launch videos, Democratic debates and the CNN town hall on climate. Taken together, they present a paradigm for appeal to all Democratic voters, such that the strongest possible contender wins out and can take on the storyteller-in-chief in 2020.

Campaign Launch Video: Joe Biden

The former vice president spent the first two-thirds of his three-and-a-half-minute video exploring the history of Charlottesville, Virginia—what it was when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and what it became under Trump (with “very fine people on both sides”). Although his delight scores were modest compared to his wonder and wisdom marks, Biden’s message scored second highest among Democrats. Most importantly, Biden structured his story as hero versus villain, with the hero being you, the voter (not himself). This is what likely led to strong showings among Republican and independent voters as well.

Debate Opening Statement: Elizabeth Warren

She has a plan, we all know this—but in a crowded field with debates stretching over two nights, Warren kept it simple. She told the truncated story of how she waitressed her way through college while raising two kids, and how that’s essentially impossible in today’s economy—yet it can be again under her leadership. This earned her the second-highest overall score among Democrats and independents, with across-the-board high marks for wonder, wisdom and delight.

Single-Issue Deep Dive: Kamala Harris

Drawing a stark contrast with Republicans on climate policy is easy. Doing so in a way that rallies the base is something else entirely. Harris did so with the utmost efficacy by presenting the issue as the most critical one facing her toddler nieces—and how Republicans are essentially failing their own families by refusing to act against special interests. “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” was her message, and it stuck with Democrats—who awarded her high scores in all three storytelling categories.

Story of Personal Resilience: Pete Buttigieg

In the third debate, the candidates were asked to talk about their biggest setbacks, what they learned and how they recovered. Mayor Pete Buttigieg earned the second-highest score among Democrats and independents with his story of coming out in an election year in conservative Indiana, yet still earning 80% of the vote. He then spun that into the larger idea of trusting the voters and exercising the courage to carry out the vision they desire.

Debate Closing Statement: Bernie Sanders

You could call it a bleak outlook, but it’s more likely that Sanders earned the biggest storytelling scores with his simple, play-it-straight statement that nothing will change if we don’t all have the guts to take on special interests. While Sanders didn’t package his statement with a beginning, middle and end, it was clear who the heroes and villains were in the broader conflict he presented. The resolution? Up to the voters—who gave Sanders the highest marks in all three categories: wisdom, wonder and delight.

While combining the lessons learned in these moments paints a picture of the perfect Democratic candidate who can lock up the nomination quickly, there’s a cautionary note: Nominees tend not to do a whole lot of immediate self-examination.

“You just won, so you don’t feel like you have a lot of weaknesses. Typically, the goal is to win the nomination without making a disqualifying move that will hurt too much in the general election,” Robison notes. At the same time, the 2020 contest doesn’t promise to be typical in any way, shape or form.

This is to say, all of the above seminal, formative moments resonated particularly strongly with the Democratic base—but none of these moments were received particularly well among Republicans. Will the skills needed to secure the nomination be the same after Super Tuesday? It’s hard to say, since many believe that the Democrats need to keep moving left and hold the line—that the primary strategy is the same as that of the general strategy. Others believe the stories need to stick with large swaths of Republicans and independents as well as Democrats.

Either way, sussing out the right approach and tailoring the message accordingly is a skill only the best storytellers possess. And among the most masterful is the incumbent.

Find more political analysis on impeachment and the 2020 election at A More Perfect Union.