At a Wisconsin campaign stop last month, Mitt Romney tried to empathize with economically stressed voters by telling the story of a landscaper’s concerns about rising gasoline prices.
“I met a guy who worked for the city and he was working, I think, in the landscape division for the city,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said at an April 2 town-hall meeting at an oil company in Milwaukee.
Romney never did get around to giving the name of the man or mention what city he had worked for, or identify the company he said the man founded after leaving his municipal job or say how much gasoline his trucks were burning.
“In today’s politics, it’s all about the narrative,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor and longtime Romney watcher at Boston University. “This has never been part of Romney’s wheelhouse. It’s just not his style.”
Story-telling is an age-old technique in politics. The two modern presidential candidates best-known for mastering the art tailored it to their political times and defeated incumbents. Ronald Reagan, a onetime movie actor, invoked a sense of patriotism and heroism amid economic distress and the Iranian hostage crisis, while Bill Clinton used personal narrative from his modest Arkansas upbringing to show empathy for Americans recovering from the recession of the early 1990s.
As he competes before November’s election against President Barack Obama -- a best-selling author who often uses stories in his stump speeches -- Romney will need to combine both styles to try to inspire a nation stuck in a tepid economic recovery and speak to the anxieties of individual workers.
The former private-equity executive has yet to demonstrate a command of the technique, as his story characters are often nameless and rendered in rushed anecdotes.
The Romney campaign recognizes its candidate’s limitations. The former Massachusetts governor, an English major at Brigham Young University, often wrote his own speeches during his 2008 White House bid. Stuart Stevens, one of his top aides and an occasional television writer, persuaded him to let others handle that task in this campaign.
Romney’s struggles with storytelling were on display at the Milwaukee event. After generating laughs by recalling how his staff had played an April Fool’s Day joke on him -- they tricked him into thinking he was going to speak before an almost empty room in front of television cameras -- he rushed through five people he’d met on the campaign trail, naming just one of them.
“I’ve been able to go and meet people who are living American lives in the ways that you and I do and find extraordinary people,” he started out.
He first talked about a couple from Appleton, Wisconsin, he had met who were concerned that their retirement would be delayed because the residential rental properties they’d purchased had lost about a third of their value.
“So there’s more anxiety than they thought they’d be experiencing in their 60s,” he said.
Romney then talked about another nameless man he’d met while campaigning.
“I met a guy in St. Louis,” he said. “He was working at an advertising agency, left, and with his son started a business making amplifiers for electric guitars. They had a couple of employees, but the Obama economy has been tough, so they laid off the two employees and now they are just doing it on their own. But they’re confident that the future will be bright.”
That was the end of that story.
Importance of Details
While Romney’s tendency to not name most of the characters provides them some privacy, it robs his stories of credibility, said Tim Walch, the former executive director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
“It becomes rhetoric because there’s a skepticism about whether it really happened,” Walch said. “When you name the individual, you have a second story because the media will follow-up and report about that person.”
So far, Romney’s off-the-cuff attempts at being more personal have often served to only remind people of one of his liabilities: that he’s one of the wealthiest Americans ever to run for president.
“Most people cannot tell you a single quotable phrase from a Romney speech,” Walch said. The lines that often do get repeated are that his wife owns a “couple of Cadillacs,” he has friends who are NASCAR owners, and that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” because they have government programs helping them.
Romney, 65, has sought to lower expectations for his performances and raise those for the president. He presents Obama, 50, as a gifted orator who hasn’t delivered on his promises.
“The president has always been good at saying things that sound wonderful, but you know, we now have not just his words, but his record,” he said in an April 19 Fox News interview.
Obama, in his first White House bid, collected anecdotes and personal stories that he spun into his own narrative as he tried to fight off charges of being an elitist academic.
As they did for Reagan and Clinton, Obama’s campaign trail stories brought his speeches to life and often moved his audiences.
There was Ashley Baia, a woman working for his campaign who as a child convinced her ill mother that she liked to eat mustard and relish sandwiches more than anything else because she knew that would help save the family money.
Obama often took five minutes or more to tell the story of Edith Childs, a South Carolina woman he met one rainy morning on the campaign trail who inspired one of his campaign’s favorite slogans and chants, “Fired up, ready to go.” Reporters would sometimes roll their eyes as he told the story again and again. His audiences loved it.