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A Presidential Campaign Strategist Tells All

March 8, 2016 Culture By Photo by The New York Times

In election years, the entire country becomes a red and blue chessboard. In this contest, you, the citizen, are both player and spectator — and what a spectacle it is. Candidates kiss babies one moment and act like them the next. They are at once heroes, villains and cartoon caricatures of themselves, and, like a summer blockbuster or a Steven King novel, it is very hard to look away. This is by design.

“People don’t go to movies and they don’t read a book unless there’s a story,” says political media strategist Mark McKinnon in “How to Win an Election,” a short documentary by The New York Times. “It’s the same thing with campaigns. Successful campaigns tell a story.” McKinnon explains how he uses media (primarily television) to work presidential campaigns into narrative arcs compelling enough to both hold voters’ attentions and sway their vote when the time comes. (Lest McKinnon make this look easy, remember that there have been plenty of examples of silly, bizarre and outright bad campaign media.)

As television becomes increasingly available on demand and commercial spots for presidential campaigns become more skippable, a job like McKinnon’s might have to adapt to more relevant platforms of social media whose design limits campaigning to 140 characters rather than refined commercials. Alternatively, social media has allowed 2016 candidates like Bernie Sanders to accrue most of his success via Facebook posts often featuring words from his own head. “I play a very, very active role in writing, literally writing, what goes up there on Facebook,” Sanders told The New York Times. “Usually, it’s in the shower where something pops into my head.”