Since 1976, no Republican has gone on to become the party’s presidential nominee without first winning either the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary. If that trend holds, we’ll have Sen. Ted Cruz or Donald Trump on the ticket in November.
But this year, conventional wisdom has been turned on its head, and there are a handful of Republican candidates still working to reshape the election and their image with voters.
From the time a political campaign begins, and often well before, candidates and their teams work to create an image and then convince the chattering class of political reporters and opinion leaders to believe it, or at least retell it over and over to a national audience of potential donors and voters.
When the candidate’s image is established and there is general insider consensus about who the candidate is, this product positioning becomes his or her “political narrative.” And, as hard as each works to solidify their narrative, they are working just as hard to disrupt and redefine their opponents’ narratives.
Leading into the New Hampshire primary, Gov. Chris Christie took fierce aim at Sen. Marco Rubio. Christie attempted to redefine Rubio as a scripted “boy in the bubble” who relies heavily on talking points.
During last weekend’s debate, when Rubio repeated his talking point several times, lambasting President Barack Obama, it served as the perfect, real-time evidence Christie needed to redefine Rubio. If Christie hadn’t exploited the gaffe on live TV, it likely would have passed unnoticed by many. Surely, it would not have become the media moment it turned out to be.
Gaffes that serve as evidence to fortify a rumor circulating among insiders are the hardest ones to shake. To undo the damage, one must have skill, luck and enough time to fix it. While Rubio tried to aggressively fight back against the criticism, the damage was done.
Initially, Trump was seen by many pundits as a reality show star, posing as a politician. Most believed he would fizzle before the first votes were cast. But results from the first two contests have chipped away at his early narrative and solidified him as the front-runner. Trump plows over anyone attempting to put a dent in his self-made image of anti-establishment rabble-rouser.
After New Hampshire, the Republican establishment may now have to take him seriously as a candidate.
In the 2004 election, reinforced counternarratives resulted in the political demise of two candidates. After losing the Iowa caucus, Howard Dean, in what he called spur of the moment remarks, rolled up his sleeves and launched into a rant – now known as the “Dean scream.”
His outburst played into the counternarrative forming among critics and the media that he was an angry candidate who may not have the temperament to be president. His outburst bolstered the story. Days later, he lost big in New Hampshire.
Later that year, the George W. Bush campaign pounded Democratic nominee John Kerry for changing positions on issues. (“I voted for the war before I voted against it.”) The Bush campaign obtained footage of Kerry windsurfing and voila, counternarrative complete. Kerry is a flip-flopper who goes where the wind takes him. Voters rejected him.
With Republicans turning their focus to South Carolina, which is known for heated political brawls and dirty tricks, expect to see the claws come out as candidates work to define themselves and their opponents.
South Carolina voters tout that since 1980, the winner of the state’s Republican primary has gone on to be the nominee in every election but one. Time will tell if that will hold true or if the Palmetto State has to come up with its own new narrative.
Ashley Snee Giovannettone worked on the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign, served as spokeswoman for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and is currently a consultant in Sacramento. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.