It is nice to think you control your own story. It’s rarely that simple. In politics, it never is. In a standard stump speech the candidate first gets our attention by being Passionate, then offers us a view on the world we feel comfortable sharing (Hero), defines the problems we confront (Antagonist) and finds inspiring solutions (Awareness). We leave the rally fired up and Transformed. This follows the basic presentational pattern we recommend in our book The Elements of Persuasion. But in the real world the sequence of the elements is not so easy to control, with voters often perceiving the problem first, and only then shopping for the hero most likely to have the solution.
Take the Republicans. Their biggest problem isn’t Iraq; it is Scandal. Senator Craig’s sordid tale set in a Men’s Room at the Minneapolis Airport is only the latest in a very long list of shockingly destructive stories tainting the GOP. When confronted with scandal you look for a cop, so it is no coincidence that the two leading candidates – Giuliani and Thompson – both have reputations as tough New York City prosecutors. Giuliani was one. Thompson plays one on TV. But Thompson’s credentials aren’t purely fictional. He earned his political bones as an investigator during Watergate, and went on to expose a nasty cash-for-clemency scandal in Tennessee that indirectly led to his film career. Whichever candidate most successfully (and directly) confronts the scandal issue will have a strong issue to run on down the stretch.