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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Professor’s Take: The Clinton campaign’s message challenge

Michael Cornfield is an associate professor of political management.

Hillary Clinton, who just released a new video last week after launching her campaign, could be two adjectives away from becoming the next president of the United States.

The last time someone of the same party succeeded a two-term incumbent was 1988, when George H.W. Bush kept the White House in Republican hands after Ronald Reagan. You have to go back another 40 years for the preceding occurrence, when Democrat Harry Truman won election outright after finishing Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth term. Eight years with the same president generates a strong impulse for change among the American electorate.

Bush sold himself as a “kinder, gentler” version of Ronald Reagan – though he didn’t put it that baldly. Instead, he spoke about “a kinder and gentler America.” The phrase reportedly elicited this acidic comment from Nancy Reagan: “Kinder and gentler than whom?” But Bush won.

Hillary Clinton has to project her leadership qualities as a change from President Barack Obama’s and from President Bill Clinton’s to boot, while still maintaining a sense of continuity with both of them. Such a persona, along with a strong economy and a non-imploding campaign organization, would put her in a strong position to win.

Her key rollout phrase – a first stab at a campaign slogan – expresses her desire and intent to be the “champion” of “everyday Americans.” The biography on her campaign web site, “Hillary’s Story,” affixes the adjective “forceful” to “champion.”

“Forceful champion” does not meet her need to partially differentiate herself from Bill Clinton and Obama.

The biography falls flat on emotional engagement as well. Here at the Graduate School of Political Management, we teach GW students to construct campaign narratives with story arcs. Audiences respond favorably to stories that entice them to identify with characters who seek something worthwhile and struggle to get it.

But “Hillary’s Story” doesn’t show her valiantly and successfully applying force to the causes of women, children and “everyday Americans” – which she has championed throughout her public life.

There remains ample time for Clinton and her team to find, test and plug in the right adjectives. Some of her many supporters in the GW community may help in this important campaign operation.

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