At next week's convention, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney must tell his life story in a way that connects with average voters. He must show empathy toward the struggles they face. Along with a focus on the issues that matter, Romney's storytelling is an essential part of his ticket to winning the presidency.
Political races are as much about personal narratives as they are about issues. What keeps President Barack Obama competitive in the presidential race--despite the woeful state of the economy--is that he surpasses Romney when it comes to connecting his struggles with those of the man or the woman on the street. Romney must close this gap to win while maintaining a focus on jobs, the economy, and the fiscal cliff.
A great case in point on the power of personal narratives in election outcomes is the race between John Boehner and Roy Blunt for majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. I have heard Speaker Boehner give countless speeches but rarely one where he does not mention growing up as one of twelve brothers and sisters above the family tavern where he regularly mopped floors and waited tables. In his concession speech in this close leadership contest, Representative (now Senator) Blunt revealed some of his own struggles early in his life. I went up to him immediately afterward and told him that if he would have included more of his life story in his announcement speech, he might not have had to give a concession speech. This lesson has immediate application to Romney.
In his book The Power and The Story, Evan Cornog makes a case for presidential races being, in essence, a contest of personal narratives. Cornog defines a successful presidential story as one that "connects with people as people, on a very human and emotional level, creating a link that makes voters care what happens to a distant politician, just as we care what happens to a sympathetic character in a movie."
Likeability is foundational. Obama's growing up as the child of a single mother and living with his grandparents connects him with many people's stories. He seeks to win on this front by disqualifying Romney as an alternative. If Romney had struggles of any kind with which others could empathize, these struggles remain unknown. They must be made public--in conjunction with a focus on reigniting America's jobs machine--if Romney is to win.
Yes, being rich makes it harder to connect with the middle class. Yet, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as a rich person during a time of economic turmoil, and George W. Bush won despite also having a famous and wealthy father. There is no doubt that private equity is less fertile ground for engaging stories than is community advocacy, but all career paths can contain periods of struggle, difficult decisions, and personal connections with people that can prove pivotal.
Romney is long overdue in telling his life story in a way that connects with the average American voter. Recently allowing a window into his faith was a step in the right direction, as while most Americans have minimal understanding of Mormonism, many can relate to being devoted to a religion, taking communion, and singing hymns. Romney will need to seek to share more such experiences.
While conventions offer the ideal environments for developing candidates' personal narratives, with modern day extended campaigns, one should not wait for the convention to start the storytelling process. The extended Republican debate period was jab-counter jab with no personal narrative development. The Bain Capital theme initially teed up by then-candidate Newt Gingrich evolved into an avalanche of media assaults as the Obama campaign seized the opportunity. These attacks happened prior to Romney establishing his life narrative in the mind of voters and will make it more challenging for Romney to tell his story in a convincing, positive light.
With the addition of Paul Ryan to the ticket, Romney has made a bold statement that the fiscal cliff is an issue of paramount importance. This was a prudent move. Now as we enter convention week, Romney's campaign must fully develop his life stories that give meaning to his convictions. These stories are necessary to fuel Romney's ability to persuade voters.
Job no. 1 for Romney--if he wishes to have the job of president--is to tell you why he cares if you have a job.
Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).