The Duck of Minerva

Narrating the Democratic Primary


9 May 2008

An interesting thing happened late Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning. The narrative that had driven the Democratic Presidential primary contest unraveled before our eyes and a new narrative was cast.

Going into the Tuesday primaries in IN and NC, the story was Obama has the lead, Hillary is making a move, and they will probably split the two states with the contest continuing on through June 3. And, the predicted outcome did in fact come to pass. Obama won NC, and Hillary won IN. And yet, it was how they won and how those ‘victories’ were given meaning that shifted the narrative. Over the course of several conversations between Chris Matthews and Tim Russert, Wolf Blitzer and John King, the story of the race was taken apart and re-told, and the race took on a new meaning.

Two important things happened.

First, Obama is now the presumptive nominee. The math really didn’t change all that much. The candidates haven’t really changed what they are doing (both are still continuing to campaign). But, once Russert said it, it was so. Its not because Tim Russert is all powerful and can re-shape American politics, on MSNBC no less. Rather, its because Russert and his media colleagues started a new narrative that rapidly took hold not just in the media but the blogosphere and everywhere else people talk politics.

Second, the so-called split in the party that the so-called divisive primary battle was creating instantly healed. Both Obama and Clinton gave speeches chock-full of appeals to the party faithful, contrasting their positions not with each other, but with the Republicans and McCain. And people picked up on these themes, discussing how the repairing of the party had begun. The story moved to how Democrats would deal with McCain, not how the two Democratic candidates were splitting from each-other.

This episode should serve to remind us of two things. First, campaigns, like all politics, are narrative events. You win the nomination politically by establishing the narrative of “winner.” The rest follows (delegates, the actual nomination). Second, these narratives are highly unstable and can shift rapidly. Indeed, the hard work is to get any one narrative to stick around long enough to shape a race and produce electoral outcomes. The surprise is not that the race changed so fast, but that it was anchored in a particular narrative for so long. Each campaign throws out a campaign narrative each and every day, and most of them fall flat on their face—they are lucky to survive a news cycle or two. The Obama – Clinton stand-off story seemed to last for quite a while, despite the delegate counts, primary victories (and losses), and such. The story lasted long enough to seem “the way things are,” and started to drive other narratives out of play. And yet, in one night, those participating in and following this race dropped the old narrative in favor of the other, and things suddenly shifted, and that which was seemingly so strongly entrenched vanished.

Its kind of like the end of the cold war, in a slightly different context. Imagine if there were more relational, discourse-oriented political scientists doing American Politics.

(as a parenthetical, I never put much faith in the Discord among Democrats story. If you remember, that same story was told about the Republicans way back when. Oh, the Romney people hate McCain. Conservatives don’t see McCain as a ‘real’ Republican. Well, guess what—McCain won the context and started running against all things Hillary, and guess what, the party closed ranks behind him. My guess is that Democrats will do the same—once the contest is over, the party will come together and realize that it really doesn’t want a McCain presidency, and support whoever wins. Of course, that depends on someone ‘winning….’)