Is Ted Cruz a conservative outsider or a Harvard Law grad whose wife is a top Goldman Sachs exec?
Was Chris Christie a scrappy middle-class kid who worshipped Bruce Springsteen or a former lobbyist George W. Bush affectionately called "Big Boy"?
Should we think of Marco Rubio as the son of a bartender or as a "wheeling-and-dealing" Miami politician?
Is Jeb Bush the beneficiary of a political dynasty or a loving father married to a Mexican immigrant?
And that's the challenge for the potential candidates for the 2016 GOP nomination. They'll have to battle to define themselves in the most flattering light (outsider, scrappy, son of a bartender) while downplaying the more negative characterizations (elitist, lobbyist, fortunate son) their opponents will attempt to assign them.
Republican voters should think long and hard about these disparate narratives — the good, the bad, and the ugly — before settling on a candidate. Campaigns matter, but most battles are won before they are fought. If Barack Obama wanted a GOP opponent he could paint as Gordon Gekko, then Mitt Romney was right out of central casting. In hindsight, the 2012 race was probably over before it started, and anyone objectively looking at Romney's background should have realized that.
We tend to vote for people we like or identify with. After all, a lot of these guys share the same basic ideas on a big chunk of the big issues facing our country — the differences are in the policy details, but more importantly, in who they are. And the biographical image we paint of a candidate is usually much more important than any policy proposals or speeches they might deliver.
This may sound like conventional wisdom, but it's certainly not reflected in much of the early reporting I've seen, and primary voters put too little stock in it.
Here's the rub: Biographical narratives aren't nearly as important until someone becomes the nominee. And some of the most devastating vulnerabilities aren't fully exposed in a primary because doing so would require an opponent to hit from the left — which many Republican opponents are loathe to do. (And because Republican primary voters might not be moved by the information anyway.)
Here's the good news for this new crop of Republicans eyeing a 2016 run: They have some incredibly good stories to tell. Cruz and Rubio (both of Cuban heritage) and Bobby Jindal (Indian heritage) can talk about how their parents saw opportunity in the American Dream. This would also have the benefit of making the election "historic" (an important thing when you consider Hillary's election would also be historic) and of undermining negative stereotypes about the GOP being the party of old white men.
This election also presents an opportunity for a GOP candidate to connect with average Americans who didn't attend an Ivy League school. While Jindal (a Rhodes scholar) and Cruz (Princeton and Harvard Law) certainly have impressive academic credentials, Marco Rubio, who attended Tarkio College, University of Florida, and then the University of Miami School of Law, would represent a more standard educational background in America. And Scott Walker, the very successful governor of Wisconsin, didn't even graduate college. Rubio would be the first president since Reagan not to have attended an Ivy League school, and Walker would be the first since Truman not to have graduated college.
There is a ton of talent on the GOP bench. And some great stories to tell, too. The challenge for these Republicans is making sure the stories are told on their terms.
This, by the way, is an argument for running some positive ad spots at the beginning of the general election. Negative ads work, but voters also want to know (and like) the person they're voting for. And that requires telling a good story.
Editor's note: Matt Lewis' wife formerly worked as a consultant for Ted Cruz.
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