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Stories Speak Louder than Statistics: Feingold and Johnson Wield Their Autobiographies in Final Debate

October 28, 2010

Last Friday, at Marquette University Law School, senatorial candidates Russ Feingold (D) and Ron Johnson (R) met for a third and final debate before midterm elections. The first two debates focused on health care and foreign policy, and the economy was supposed to headline the final debate. But Friday night in Milwaukee turned out to be a showdown in autobiographies, and Feingold brought plot and characters while Johnson brought a couple of disembodied statistics.

Candidates wielding their autobiographies to win voters is increasingly common in politics, as Professor of Communication Kathleen Hall Jamieson has shown in her work on presidential campaigns. As Jamieson has argued, these moves were especially striking in the 2008 presidential campaign, when McCain’s platform was about being a soldier and senator in service to his country and Obama’s was about being a man who understands divides like black and white, have and have-not. These stories–and their morals of “Elect a Republican!” and “Elect a Democrat!”–appealed to different demographics.

For Feingold and Johnson, the topic of the economy highlighted key differences in their autobiographies–and therefore the stories they could tell during the third debate. Feingold has been on the Wisconsin and national political scene for almost thirty years, and Johnson has been a businessman in Wisconsin for about the same period of time. What are the most salient economic features of the two candidates’ biographies, you ask? For Feingold, it’s his campaign finance reform bill with John McCain. For Johnson, it’s the company he started with and later bought from his brother-in-law.

As a relative newcomer to politics, it’s important for Ron Johnson to establish his identity in the current political vernacular, which is dominated these days by “small business” and the ubiquitous “Main Street vs. Wall Street” comparison. It’s also important to discredit Feingold. To Johnson, Feingold is a “career politician” who has been in Washington too long to know Wisconsin’s needs anymore. And the term “career politician” invokes all the negative connotations of big business and bigger government that many Republicans are blaming for the economic recession.

Johnson described himself, however, as a “manufacturer,” “small business person,” and “Main Street guy.” These strategic descriptions suggest a different moral of the story than other titles that have been used to describe Johnson, such as “millionaire” and “businessman.” After all, conventional wisdom says that a manufacturer is more likely to get his hands dirty than a businessman, and a small business person is more likely to connect with Wisconsin’s working class than a millionaire. But after giving a gung-ho title for his autobiography (Ron Johnson: The Man, the Manufacturer, the Legendary Small Business Person), Johnson didn’t have much of a story to tell the debate audience.

Feingold, on the other hand, didn’t bother with a title and offered an autobiography filled with chapters in which he talked to people running small businesses throughout Wisconsin. Mentioning Real People Just Like You!™ who will benefit from a policy or a bill is a common move in politics, but Feingold presented these people as part of a larger story arc about how well he serves Wisconsin.

One of the chapters in Feingold’s biography features Renewergy, an expanding small business in—guess where?—Ron Johnson’s hometown of Oshkosh. Another goes to a man who runs a fence manufacturing company in Lodi County. As Feingold said:

I go to Walworth County Fair, I talk to the guy that’s producing fences there. I thought, this guy’s gonna tell me the economy’s a problem. He said, “Actually, Russ, it’s going gangbusters. We’re getting orders much later in the year than we normally do to make fences.”

Feingold certainly exemplifies argument by example, a persuasive move pointed out in an earlier post. But Feingold offers a story about himself, not just characters. Feingold does an excellent job presenting himself as Wisconsin’s Odysseus, traveling to all the state’s counties to live his constituents’ trials vicariously before claiming victory over other suitors to his senate seat. This is a far cry from Johnson, who defiantly claimed that he visited a whopping 60 counties in the state. (Total counties in Wisconsin? 72.)

An exchange between Feingold and Johnson nicely demonstrates the persuasive difference between a good story and a good statistic:

Feingold: You better tell the people in Plymouth, Wisconsin… that community worked for 11 years to have a new senior center. When the economy tanked, their plans and their hopes to have that senior center were dashed… The reason they’re going to have that senior center is because of a one-million dollar grant from the stimulus package… And who’s doing the work? It’s not government employees, Ron. It’s the Joseph A. Schmidt Company from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who are doing the work. It’s private jobs. It’s private work. That’s a permanent firm. It’s false that the bill didn’t provide jobs.

Johnson: You know what else is permanent? The 800 billion dollars of debt that is now passed on to our children and grandchildren.

These children and grandchildren are the only people whom Johnson refers to, and passing on an 800 billion-dollar debt doesn’t make for a great plot. But it seems that Johnson’s background makes him more comfortable talking about numbers than people, even himself. Whether or not you think Feingold is a career politician in Johnson’s negative sense, Feingold is the better storyteller… and more persuasive, if you like the moral of his story.

If you want to know more:

  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson has co-authored several books on the rhetorical aspects of the American presidency, including “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.”
  • Want to hear Feingold and Johnson speak for themselves—and see who wore a flag pin and who didn’t? Watch the third Feingold-Johnson debate on C-SPAN here.
  • You can visit Russ Feingold’s web site here.
  • You can visit Ron Johnson’s web site here.
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