Sorry for the delayed post – the elections are always a busy time for me!

Which brings me to today’s question – how are elections like the game of squash?

Come on, this is easy!

Come on, this is easy!

The traditional answer is that the winner, in both cases, tends to be the one who does the fewest mistakes as opposed to the boldest player. But in today’s media saturated elections, it’s not obvious what really is a mistake… that’s how media manipulation works.

Let’s take some examples. Remember him?

Al Gore

Before he was a professor, he was actually a vice-presidential candidate. No, really. During the 2001 election, he lost the presidential race to George Bush. One of the milestones of that campaign was the famous “I invented the internet”  remark that Gore made. That statement was picked up by every media outlet, every late night comedian, every blog (well, the two or three blogs that were around back then) and contributed to building Gore’s image as a slightly out-of-touch, arrogant politician. Even today, most people who dislike Ol’ Al will remember that remark smugly.

The problem is, that, he kind of did. First of all, Al Gore didn’t actually say he invented the Internet. What he said, specifically, was that during his time in Congress, he “took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection.”

That is actually a far cry from saying that he invented the Internet. Al Gore was saying that he created the legislative framework for the Internet. It was slightly badly phrased, but Wolf Blitzer, who was conducting the interview, simply continued the interview because it was a fairly innocuous phrase. And Gore was actually the politician that was first to support the Internet. Do you know this guy?

Vince Serf - Invented the Internet

That's Vince Serf. If anyone actually 'invented' the Internet, it's him.
He created and developed html, the language of the web, which made browsers
and web pages and blogs about manipulation possible.When the jokes about
inventing the Internet started, Vince himself argued - vociferously - that Al
Gore should get a fair bit of credit for supporting the early Internet.
He said: "there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator,
Gore's initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the
still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking
about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening."

So a politician says something that is poorly worded but largely accurate. How do you go from this to becoming a national joke?

A number of things had to happen for this to take place. First, the RNC decided to use the quote to attack the candidate. Two days after Al Gore talked about his role, Michelle Mittelstadt placed a story on the AP wire that said: “Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he is the father of the Internet drew amused protests Thursday from congressional republicans.”

Now, Al Gore never made the claim that he was the father of the Internet, but that didn’t matter anymore. The story hit the wire, Republicans began to comment on it (using the language ‘father of the Internet’, “invented the Internet”, etc…), the RNC began sending out faxes to media organizations, and more and more journalists, desperate for copy during the election cycle, began to repeat the story, to comment on it, to  showcase it – almost all of them either completely misquoting the Vice President, or downright making up the quotes. The story had gone viral.

Why? Even Newt Gingrich, Republican extraordinaire, knew the truth. On Sept 1, 2000, he said that “Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.”

But it didn’t matter. There is the Power of Narrative in politics. We will come back again and again to this, because it is one of the most powerful forces in manipulations, but the core idea is that people like a story. Real humans are complex and have strengths and weaknesses, complex webs of achievements and failure. This is way too complex for most of us to care about, so we tend to rely on caricatures, on simplified stories. This is why sitcom characters become more and more like simple caricatures with every passing season. In politics, it’s called narrative – if you can weave a compelling story around a candidate, positive or negative, (“poor boy made good!” or “rich aristocrat out of touch with the common man!”), you have already won half the battle.

Al Gore was a weak speaker, but a pretty thoughtful and effective legislator. To counter that, much of the Republican narrative was focused on making Al Gore appear as a boastful, out-of-touch dimwit. By the time of the infamous “I invented the Internet” story, there had already been a number of incidents (Love Canal, anyone?) where the RNC had pounced on Gore for supposedly inaccurate claims, mostly driven by the same dynamics – out of context quotes, counterclaims, etc… So when the story about the Internet started to get spread, journalists had a well-trodden narrative to follow (Al Gore is a boastful liar) and went to town. What was a completely innocuous, if slightly weakly phrased, comment became a runaway story that haunted the rest of the campaign.

Let’s take another example. Remember him?

Howard Dean

Howard Dean

That’s Howard Dean. At one time, he was considered the front-runner for the 2004 election that was eventually won by George Bush against John Kerry. But, early on in the campaign, Howard Dean was considered the Democratic front-runner, not least because he mastered building Internet-based organization and fundraising (the same techniques that would eventually propel Barack Obama to the presidency).

Then, this happened:

Howard Dean Scream - Manipulated by TV

The Dean Scream

Dean had been the favorite, but on January 19, Dean lost the Iowa caucuses, thanks to some last-minute gains by his opponents Kerry and Edwards. Disappointed, Dean went to a post-election rally in Des Moines for his supporters. The crowd was almost entirely Dean diehards, and the noise was deafening – as Dean spoke, they shouted encouragements and slogans. Dean had also had a long flu over the past few days. Out of those ingredients came a perfect storm.

As he took the stage, Dean’s face was flushed and red – a combination of the remnants of the flu and the long walk up the stage. He gave a relatively short concession speech, then decided to rally his supporters: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York … And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!”

That last ‘yeah!’ was shouted by Dean to emphasize his statement, and he belted it out to raise his voice over the crowd’s noise. The people in the room loved it and hollered and clapped. But on TV, it was a different story – the television mike automatically filtered the crowd noise, so Dean’s shout rose unnaturally and he seemed to be screaming. What in person was a candidate successfully rallying his troops on stage became, on TV, a red-faced lunatic screaming YEAH! just after losing the first primary election.

It was mana from Heaven for TV networks.

Over the next 4 days, the major networks showed the ‘Dean Scream’ clip more than 600 times in 4 days. If you switched on the television during those few days, you were more likely to see the clip than almost any other political news.

What is interesting is the reaction from Dean’s opponents. Over that same period, Kerry, Edwards, and the other candidates began to talk about their “steady hands at the tiller”, how they were “cool under pressure”, and how the role of president was too important for hot-heads.  While none of the candidates referred to the Scream explicitly, they all implicitly addressed it in their speeches, and their campaigns spent hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads to replay the Scream and keep it in the news. The narrative became, overnight, of Dean as a temperamental lunatic, someone who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear button, who couldn’t even understand when he was beaten. The narrative stuck, mostly because the cool Kerry could effectively contrast his own style (presidential, level-headed) with the screaming, red-faced Dean.

By the time of the next primary, in New Hampshire, Dean, who had had a 30% lead on his next opponent, came in second and his campaign was history.

We’ll talk about narrative again and again, because it is one of the most powerful tool a manipulator has. But what’s interesting to ponder is that neither Gore nor Dean thought they had made any mistakes – both felt they had done a good job and went home, only to see their narrative unravel on television a few days later. In a serious election, there is no undo button, and a mistake can be less what you do than what your opponents can convince the public was a mistake…