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With a Single-Issue Focus, a New Campaign Story Emerges

Sep. 12 2019

Last week, CNN held a town hall with the leading 10 candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. The sole subject: Addressing climate change. When the candidates stepped outside the traditional debate format and focused, one at a time, on a single issue, storytelling consistency proved key. More critically, however, the different medium appeared to pave the way for insurgent candidates to connect—or struggling candidates to reconnect—with voters.

Read: Andrew Yang is here to stay, and Beto O’Rourke showed renewed signs of life. Also, these single-issue-format positive performances seem to have come at the expense of establishment candidates like Joe Biden, who are well schooled at standing out in the traditional debate arena.

To now, our post-debate analyses have tracked the general storytelling abilities of the candidates to captivate voters. We shifted the focus of the Strategic Storytelling Index to CNN’s town hall to see how a specific chapter—climate change—within each candidate’s larger campaign story would resonate. Just over 1,000 Democrat, Republican and independent voters watched one-minute video clips from the town hall for each candidate, then scored the candidates on their use of the essential storytelling elements of delight, wisdom and wonder.

The two top performers had something in common: Yang and O’Rourke tied their policies on climate to basic concepts we can all relate to. In Yang’s case, it was the clean water he expects his children to be able to drink; for Beto, it was the significantly hotter and radically altered world his children will live in if we fail to act. Both presented their positions in story form, with a beginning, middle and end—plus a sense of conflict and resolution worked in so as to convey their complete understanding of the issue. Beto, in fact, scored the highest across the board among Democrats; Yang was second among Democrats, but was buoyed by earning the highest score among Republicans.



“Beto does tell a good story, and always has,” says Terry Snyder, owner of Integrated Legislative Solutions and a veteran of several city-wide campaigns in Denver. “He is as good as anyone on the stump.”

Just behind them, and still in the upper half of candidates, were Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro. Sanders’ high-scoring consistency is noteworthy in part because, despite straying from a storytelling format, he still earned high scores for delight and wisdom among Democrats; yet he was dogged by the lowest overall score among Republicans. Castro earned middling scores among Democrats, yet he got a boost from Republicans who connected with his story of the poorest neighborhoods in his Texas hometown always being the first to flood. Their opposite performances in the eyes of Republicans indicates that story matters when your ideals don’t necessarily align with those of the audience.



Bringing up the rear were Biden, Klobuchar and Cory Booker, all of whom not only clocked the lowest scores for delight, wisdom and wonder among Democrats, but failed to connect with Republicans and independents. The reason is clear upon viewing their town-hall clips. No one presented their cases in story form, and all three spoke generally about the climate challenge rather than focus on a relatable element such as rising seas or access to food and clean water. This should, in theory, be a warning shot to surging candidate Elizabeth Warren, who found herself tied with Castro for fourth place, with a score of 58.



While Warren effectively linked the increased profits of polluters to the decreasing fortunes of everyone else, she didn’t do it in story form. As a result, her wisdom score was among the highest, but she was dragged down by her delight and wonder metrics—likely lower since she didn’t make the issue tangible in the manner of Beto or Yang.

The reason those two longshots were able to make their stories stick, Snyder notes, is that they can afford to take the risks that establishment candidates cannot in a new, untested format. “There’s a degree of caution that comes from being a frontrunner. You’re being pushed not to make mistakes,” he says. “You’re not going for the home runs.”

But time is running short. As we approach the next debate in Houston, it should be all the clearer to the contenders that they can’t simply rely on a broader campaign story to build momentum; they need to engage by using storytelling on each and every issue.

Image source: Getty Images