Candidate Origin Stories: Creating Voter Connections
Sarah Fulton & David Redlawsk
Sarah Fulton is a senior Journalism and History double major at Drake University.
David Redlawsk, is the Harkin Institute Mabry Fellow and Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling
During the 2003-04 Iowa Caucus cycle, you could not attend a John Edwards’ event without hearing him talk of being “the son of a millworker.” This time around even political blue-blue Hillary Clinton is claiming humble roots. It seems that running for president means having a personal history tailor-made to appeal to the country’s millions of diverse citizens. But is that even possible? How can one background story speak to a steel worker in Detroit and an upper class mom in Santa Barbara? It is a struggle that candidates and their consultants deal with every election cycle.
Writer Chris Witherspoon explained in a recent article that candidates need to be “to be in touch with the dynamics of culture and the needs of consumers at this moment in time to build connections.” They have to relate to the desires of “everyman.” A major way they appear to do this is by creating an origin story.
Origin stories highlight specific portions of a candidate’s personal history. Candidates work them into almost every speech, highlight them on campaign material, and mention them in television advertisements. Take for example Hillary Clinton. She could sell herself as a mother, grandmother, first lady, former Senator, or Secretary of State. Instead of focusing on these Clinton has chosen to zero in on how her mother had a hard life but worked hard so Hillary could attend law school. The hope is middle and lower class families will relate to her because she understands their struggles. With her origin story Clinton is trying to humanize herself and overcome her well defined public persona. She is trying to connect to everyday people who otherwise might consider her too elite.
Origin stories are nearly universal with similar themes for the most part. Interestingly, perhaps, the only candidate who seems to violate this is Donald Trump, whose story is definitely not about the average American. But most are. Some Republican candidates, like Ben Carson, tout how they grew up in a tough situation but through hard work and faith achieved success. To balance out their party’s often harsh views on immigration, candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush have all claimed a personal connection to it. The goal is to show how they are “every American.” By voting for them, citizens are voting for someone who is like them and who understands them.
This does not mean the stories are necessarily false. Dorothy Rodham being abandoned by her parents very likely impacted how she raised Hilary. It would be shocking to learn Jeb Bush’s wife being an immigrant did not help shape his position on immigration. Origin stories do actually have to have some basis in the history of the candidate. However, they are cherry-picked and shaped to fit the brand of the candidate. Lindsey Graham wants to be viewed as a family advocate so he talks about raising his sister after his parents died. Other portions of his narrative, like attending law school, are given less play.
Candidates need to connect to the general population. They shape their personal histories into origin stories to help them do it.
Candidate Origin Stories from their own Websites
The best place to learn about how a candidate is presenting his history is his campaign’s “About” page. No other place is his background so heavily branded. Below you will find a short statement about my impression of each candidate’s origin story and some quotes from his page.
Donald Trump: The billionaire businessman
“Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports and entertainment. He is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. An accomplished author, Mr. Trump has authored over fifteen bestsellers, and his first book, The Art of the Deal, is considered a business classic and one of the most successful business books of all time.”
Ben Carson: Overcame poverty to become a pediatric neurosurgeon who loves Jesus
“But growing up poor in a single-parent household in Detroit with bad grades and a horrible temper, the statistics were certainly not in his favor. Fortunately, Ben’s mother, having only completed third grade herself, challenged her two children to reach beyond their meager circumstances through reading and building their knowledge of the world.”
“After graduation, Ben would work as an X-ray technician, a bank teller, a school bus driver, a supervisor for highway cleanup crews, and a crane operator in a steel factory, before being accepted into The University of Michigan School of Medicine.”
Carly Fiorina: The Hewitt Packard CEO who started as a secretary
“We were a modest, middle-class family. My mother was a full-time mother and homemaker, my father an academic, and there were three children to raise. Success was not, to my parents, about fame and fortune. It was ultimately about the quality of one’s mind and one’s character… Character was everything and character was defined as candor, integrity and authenticity.” “After college, Carly attended the UCLA School of Law in 1976, but left after one semester when she realized she didn’t want to be a lawyer. She then took a job with the real estate firm Marcus and Millichap, starting out as a receptionist and moving up to a broker.”
Marco Rubio: The son of Cuban immigrants who worked hard to follow the example of his parents:
“The lives of Marco’s parents were forever changed in 1956 when they came to America from Cuba. Early on, Mario and Oria Rubio struggled being in the United States and wondered whether they had made the right decision. But in the decades that followed, America proved to be that shining city on the hill as they worked their way into the middle class and were able to provide opportunities for their children that ad previously been out of reach.” “He saw that hard work and sacrifice led to achievement. He knew, firsthand, what his parents did to succeed. He watched his mother, Oria, work as a maid, cashier and stock clerk. He saw his father, Mario, work as a bartender, only to come home from work so late at night.”
Ted Cruz: A family man who followed his parents’ example to success in public service
“Ted’s calling to public service has been inspired by his first-hand observation of the pursuit of freedom and opportunity in America. Ted’s mother, Eleanor, was born in Delaware to an Irish and Italian working-class family. She became the first in her family to go to college, graduated from Rice University with a degree in mathematics, and became a pioneering computer programmer in the 1950s.”
“After being tortured and imprisoned in Cuba, Ted’s father, Rafael, fled to the United States to attend the University of Texas at Austin in 1957. He then started a small business in the oil and gas industry. Today, Ted’s father is a pastor in Dallas.”
“Ted has been a tireless fighter for liberty his entire life because his family knows what it is like to lose it.”
Jeb Bush: The humble husband of a Mexican immigrant
“My life changed forever when I was a young man on an exchange program in León Guanajuato, Mexico. Across a plaza, I saw a girl. She spoke little English, and my Spanish was a work in progress. But for me, it was love at first sight. Some people don’t think that’s a real thing—but I know. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t eat; I lost 20 pounds. From the moment I got to know her, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.”
“On Election Night 1994, I was one of the few Republicans running for office in the entire country who lost. Talk about a blow to your pride. I’m not embarrassed to admit I took it hard. After some soul-searching and praying, I made two major decisions.”
Chris Christie: Jersey native, who made his mark as a U.S. prosecutor and then as Governor
Page based on photos. These are some captions:
“Chris was born in Newark, New Jersey on September 6, 1962”
“The Christie family spent summers on the Jersey Shore. Pictured: Chris’s mother Sondra, father Wilbur, sister Dawn, and brother Todd”
“Chris graduated from Livingston High School in 1980”
“Chris served as U.S. Attorney from 2002-2008”
“Chris was elected to office as Governor of New Jersey in 2009 and re-elected in 2013”
John Kasich: Christian Governor of Ohio, who tells it like it is
“Husband, father, friend, person of faith, leader, change agent…John Kasich is a lot of things and through it all runs his honest, direct, authentic, tenacious approach to life that has allowed him, time and again, to do what they said couldn’t be done and, as his mom told him as a boy, “make things a little better because you were there.”
“The governor is originally from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar town outside Pittsburgh where his father delivered mail for 30 years. He and his wife Karen have twin teenage daughters.”
Mike Huckabee: Long-term governor of Arkansas and Christian family man
“Huckabee is famous republican politician, known as a governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007 and as political commentator at Fox News Channel. He has recently formed HuckPac to assist Republicans running for office nationwide. Huckabee is also an author of several books, a public speaker and an ordained Southern Baptist minister.”
“Michael Huckabee is an excellent husband and father. His wife Janet and he have been married for 33 years and gave a birth for three wonderful children: Sarah, John Mark and David.”
Rand Paul: A former ophthalmologist and family man who came to Washington to fight for liberty.
“Senator Rand Paul, M.D. is one of the nation’s leading advocates for liberty. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Dr. Paul has proven to be an outspoken champion for constitutional liberties and fiscal responsibility.”
“A devoted husband and father, Dr. Paul and his family live in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Rand owned his own ophthalmology practice and performed eye surgery for 18 years.”
“Dr. Paul has been married for 24 years to Kelley Ashby Paul of Russellville, Kentucky, and together, they have three sons: William, 21; Duncan, 18; and Robert, 15. He regularly volunteered to coach teams for each of his three sons in Little League baseball, soccer, and basketball. Rand and Kelley are both devout Christians and are active in their local church.”
George Pataki: New York governor who pulled his state out of crisis, grandson of immigrants
“Former three-term governor of New York George Pataki brought conservative solutions to a state in crisis, revived the economy and led through the worst terrorist attack on American soil.”
“Pataki grew up in upstate New York working on the family farm where he learned the power of discipline, community, and hard work. His grandparents were immigrants. His father was a postman and volunteer fire chief. George’s mother turned down a college scholarship in order to continue working to help support her family, but she was determined that her sons would go to college.”
Rick Santorum: Conservative Christian family advocate
“In 2012, Rick and Karen co-founded Patriot Voices, a grassroots and online community of Americans committed to finding ways to restore the American dream for hardworking families. Patriot Voices impacted a number of economic, social and national security issues by mobilizing its army of grassroots volunteers.”
“Rick Santorum believes that strong families help produce a strong economy. We must expand opportunities for all Americans by encouraging incentives for marriage, children, and free enterprise.”
Lindsey Graham: Grew up in a small town and served as an Air Force prosecutor
“Raised in Central, South Carolina where he lived with his family in a single room behind the liquor store, restaurant and pool hall owned by his parents, Lindsey Graham began his climb toward the American Dream.”
“The first in his family to attend college, Lindsey lost his mother and father within two years of one another. While still in school, he took on the responsibility of helping raise his 13 year old sister, Darline, and running the family businesses. He eventually legally adopted Darline.”
“After law school, Lindsey joined the United States Air Force as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, where he acted as a military prosecutor and defense attorney.”
Hillary Clinton: Parents fought for a middle class upbringing so she could be successful at jobs like being Secretary of State
“Hillary’s mother, Dorothy, had a tough childhood. She was abandoned by her parents as a young child and shipped off to live with relatives who didn’t want her. By age 14, Dorothy knew the only way she’d get by was to support herself, and she started working as a housekeeper and babysitter while she went through high school.”
“Her own childhood was very different. Her parents built a stable middle class life. Hillary attended public schools and was a Brownie and a Girl Scout. She played in a girls’ softball league. She was raised a Methodist and her mom taught Sunday school.”
“Hillary graduated from Wellesley College and then went to Yale Law School, where she was one of just 27 women in her graduating class. Hillary met her husband Bill at law school.”
Lincoln Chafee: A public servant who work his way up through the ranks
“Lincoln Davenport Chafee has the distinction of serving as a mayor, governor, and United States Senator. First elected to public office in 1985 as a Delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention, he served on the Warwick City Council from 1986 to 1990. In 1992, he became the first Republican mayor of Warwick in 32 years, and the popular municipal leader was re-elected in 1994, 1996 and 1998.”
Martin O’Malley: D.C. narrative who learned the ropes working as a State’s Attorney in the rough city of Baltimore
“Born in Washington, D.C., O’Malley was raised in Bethesda and Rockville, Maryland by parents who taught him the importance of public service.”
“O’Malley graduated from Catholic University, and went on to earn his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1988. That same year, he was appointed as an Assistant State’s Attorney for the City of Baltimore. Driven by the epidemic of crime, drugs, and poverty that he witnessed as a lawyer, O’Malley ran for Baltimore City Council at the age of 28, where he served for eight years.”
Bernie Sanders: Learned the ropes in Vermont and then fought for the state in Congress
“As mayor, Bernie’s leadership helped transform Burlington into one of the most exciting and livable small cities in America. Under his administration, the city made major strides in affordable housing, progressive taxation, environmental protection, childcare, women’s rights, youth programs and the arts.”
“Bernie lives in Burlington, Vermont with his wife Jane. He has four children and seven grandchildren.”
Jim Webb: A military man who knows about international affairs
“Jim Webb, former Senator from Virginia, has been a combat Marine, a counsel in the Congress, an assistant secretary of defense and Secretary of the Navy, an Emmy-award winning journalist, a film-maker, and the author of ten books.”
“Both sides of Mr. Webb’s family have a strong citizen-soldier military tradition that predates the Revolutionary War. Mr. Webb’s father was a career Air Force officer who flew B-17s and B-29s during World War Two, cargo planes during the Berlin Airlift, and was a pioneer in the United States missile program. Colonel Webb was the first family member to finish high school and graduated from the University of Omaha in 1962 after 26 years of night school.”
“While in the Senate, Mr. Webb was selected to deliver the response to the President’s State of the Union address in 2007, and served on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, and the Joint Economic Committees.”