Winning Lessons from Hillary Clinton’s DNC Speech

CASE STUDY: The Power of Clear Stakes in Clinton's Acceptance Speech

On July 28th, Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to run as president this November.  That night she gave an acceptance speech to the assembled delegates of her party in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  As I analyzed Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, here’s what candidates can learn from Mrs. Clinton’s speech.

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But first let’s lay a little ground work of where things stood for Hillary Clinton as she prepared to give this speech and tell a story that she hoped would help her win the presidency.

Clinton’s Challenges

Hillary Clinton faced five major challenges before the DNC in Philadelphia.

1. She’s running to be the first candidate to succeed a sitting president of the same party who has been in office for eight years.  The last time it happened was 1988 when George Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan.

The last time before that was 1948, when Harry Truman won his first election to serve as president after coming into office as vice president following the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  FDR had been unprecedentedly elected to the White House four times, making Truman the fifth consecutive Democratic win.  Four years later, America would switch to a Republican president by electing Dwight Eisenhower.

2. Clinton had a major tight rope to walk.  69% of the American people feel the country is on the wrong track, a sentiment that Donald Trump thoroughly exploited in his RNC acceptance speech the week before.  That anxiety and discontent fueled the unexpectedly strong and fervent challenge to Clinton in the primary elections by Senator Bernie Sanders.

However, Clinton could not risk attacking President Barack Obama who still remains mostly popular in America, especially with Democrats. While Trump had this luxury, Clinton did not.  She would need to make her case for both continuity and change simultaneously. This is often a difficult if not impossible task to accomplish.

3. Clinton needed to win over Senator Sanders’ supporters whose ideology is to the left of hers, while reaching out to the huge block of voters with middle-of-the-road views that frequently decide who will be president.

4. Hillary Clinton has never told a clear, concise story of why she should be elected President of the United States. She failed to do so in 2008 when she was bested by Barack Obama.  She struggled this year against Sanders as he found and told a narrative that voters could understand and respond too. Hillary Clinton never put a consistent winning story together and therefore took far longer to secure her party’s nomination than most pundits and campaign veterans expected.

To have a successful speech at the Democratic Convention that could help her reach the White House, Hillary Clinton would need to devise that story – especially since Trump (like Sanders) has had a clear, concise story since he launched his campaign.

5. Hillary Clinton has been a public figure in America for the past 24 years.  Voters know her (or believe they do – which is the same thing) and there’s not much new she can say about herself.  You either like or or don’t.  But to win in November, she needed to convince a fair number of people that even if they don’t like her she’s not as bad as they had thought.

Clinton’s Advantages 

Clinton’s major advantages actually come from her two opponents – the one she faced in the primary contests and the one she’s to face in the November Election.

Bernie Sanders, unlike Trump’s defeated rival Senator Ted Cruz, endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.  Many of the things Sanders campaigned on made their way into the platform of the Democratic Party.

While I’m sure Sanders would much rather be running for president against Donald Trump today, the majority of the agenda he laid out on the campaign trail is now the agenda of the Democratic Party.

But with Senator Sanders on board, Clinton could now focus on reaching the undecided voters and traditional Republicans disaffected by Trump.  This is a major advantage for Mrs. Clinton.

Donald Trump uniquely offered her two other advantages.

First, he spoke first at the Republican Convention the preceding week. That allowed Clinton and her team of speech writers to respond to his words as well as rebut them.  It also allowed them to contrast herself with Trump which provided a major opportunity to shift some preconceived opinions about her with certain voters.

At the same time, Trump also provided Clinton with something she desperately needed:  a clear concise story that reaches middle-of-the road-voters without disparaging President Obama and the record of his two terms in office.

As I’ve discussed in the past, a winning campaign story is built on six pillars.

1)  The Story’s Heroes – which should always be the voters.

2) The Problem – the thing or things that are frustrating, angering, or worrying the heroes.

3)  The Guide – the person who has the plan and can show the heroes how to make it work.  In a campaign the guide is always the candidate.

4)  The Plan – a course of action that will fix the problem.

5) The Call to Action – the clear invite to the heroes to do something to bring about the plan.  In a campaign it’s the heroes casting their votes for the candidate so they can fix the problem.

6) The Stakes – the heroes/voters must know what’s at stake.  If the candidate is elected, their plan will be implemented and the problem resolved.  If the candidate loses, the voters must also know what will happen.  Usually the problem persists or grows worse.

Here’s how the story that Hillary Clinton told in her DNC acceptance speech went.

1. Identifying the Hero

It’s easy for candidates to identify themselves as the hero. They spend so much time talking about themselves that it becomes easy for them to forget they are the guide in the story and that the voters are the heroes.

Initially, I thought Secretary Clinton had fallen into this trap. It took her a while to identify the hero in her speech.  She mentioned so many other leaders and public figures that at first it seemed that she saw them as the heroes of the story.

That however turned out to not be the case. She was in fact highlighting the unity of the leadership within the Democratic Party, something that the Republicans don’t have this year. This isn’t something that necessary needed to be done as most voters don’t care about such things. They vote for a guide with a clear plan even if the guide is standing alone that IDs them as the story’s heroes. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are testaments to this.

Fortunately for her, once Clinton got the laundry list of unified leaders out of the way she started identifying the heroes of her story – and she did it continually throughout her speech.

In Hillary Clinton’s story, the heroes are the hard working people of America. She identified them by their occupations, their genders, their ethnicity, and their socio-economic status. Clinton did all she could throughout her speech to make sure the middle-of-the-road Americans she desperately needs to win this election knew that they were the heroes of this story.

2. Stating the Problem 

The problem in Clinton’s story is two-fold, and it’s not that the country is on the wrong track, as that would put her at political odds with President Obama whom she needs on the campaign trail.

One of the problems Clinton identified is that America is too divided. These divides exist specifically in the areas of economic and social justice. There’s too much inequality and too many threats to America at home and aboard.

She went on to say that “powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart.” More accurately she should have said they are threatening to pull us further apart, but that’s minor semantics that can be forgiven.

Clinton identified those “powerful interests” as corporations on Wall Street and the National Rifle Association, specifically epitomized by Donald Trump – the billionaire and endorsed candidate of the NRA.

This was a pivot where Clinton could address the concerns and anxieties of the American people, while revealing that an even greater threat existed:  the possibility of Donald Trump becoming president in November.

In Hillary Clinton’s story, Trump is a problem that is of grave threat to America and must be avoided.

Clinton painted Trump early on as the villain of her story. He wasn’t here to help the heroes as he’d stated in his speech the week before. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing as far as Clinton was concerned.

“Don’t believe anyone who says I alone can fix it,” she warned, clearing intimating that those were the words of a dictator rather than a president elected by the people.

3. Introducing the Guide 

This was an important part of the story Hillary Clinton needed to tell. For more than two decades she’s been in the public light. People think they know her given her time as First Lady to President Bill Clinton, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State to President Obama.

While all of those positions provide her with the resume for serving as president, Clinton needed to deliver more. She needed to come off not as a Washington insider. She needed to show that she can empathize with the heroes of the story she was telling.

To this end she told about her grandfather who worked at the same lace mill for fifty years. She talked about her father who volunteered to fight in World War II then came home and started his own business. She reminisced about her mother who had been abandoned by her own parents and taught her that “no one gets through life alone.”

Her mother taught her to stand up for the disadvantaged, specifically the disabled who were not allowed in school.  Most important, Clinton told of the time when her mother blocked the door and wouldn’t let Hillary inside because she was running in to hide from a bully. Hillary Clinton’s mother made her stay outside and face the bully.

While Clinton’s pubic service presented a guide who would be qualified to fix the problems facing the nation, this story about standing up for the disadvantaged and to bullies demonstrated that she would also be able to stand her ground against the bully of her story who was now threatening the American people:  Donald Trump.

4. The Plan

Hillary Clinton’s plan addressed the two-fold problems confronting the voters.

First she gave a long laundry list of things she plans to do as president that would appeal to all wings of the Democratic Party and the vital middle-of-road voters who are still searching for their guide/candidate. Included amongst this list is making Wall Street pay its fair share, getting “common sense” Second Amendment reforms, and specifically reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case.

More importantly, Hillary Clinton wove her plan to defeat the other problem, the scarier problem lurking before America, the villain Donald Trump.  Her plan to defeat Trump is unity.  Unity not only within the Democratic Party, but unity throughout the United States because we’re “stronger together.”

“We’ll fix it together” she said, enlisting the heroes of the story in the great contest to come. This was a contrast to Trump’s claim that he alone could fix the problems of America. She even went so far as to say that this plan to move America forward through renewed national unity would succeed because “love trumps hate.”

5. The Call To Action

Hillary Clinton’s call to action was straight forward and clear.

“Will we work together so we can all rise together?” she asked the convention delegates and the TV viewers.

Without coming out and saying “vote for me,” Clinton invited the voters to take action by standing together, and thus standing with her, on Election Day this November.

6. The Stakes

Hillary Clinton presented two possible outcomes:  One of a better world where the economic and social ills of America would be resolved by the American people working together (i.e. electing her president).

The other was for the worse, where the other problem, the villain, Donald Trump, became president. And she could not have made the stakes more frightening or more dangerous in her story.

First she asked, “Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?” Then after positing this question and doubt in the minds of her audience she delivered the hammer.

“A man who you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Did Hillary Clinton Tell A Winning Story?

For the first time since she started campaigning for President of the United States back in 2008, Hillary Clinton finally succeeded in telling a clear, concise story to the voters that may help her win this election.

I do not believe this happened because her campaign suddenly figured out the elements of a winning story.  They stumbled eight years ago and lost a race they should have won to a relatively unknown senator from Illinois. This time they nearly were toppled by one from Vermont.

It is the presence of Donald Trump on the ballot that has given Hillary Clinton her story. It’s a story where he as the villain is a potentially bigger problem for the American people than anything else the country is facing.  And Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated president by a major party in this country, is the last line of defense against Trump.

In this story, she alone can save America from a horrific fate at the hands of Donald Trump. He’s the villain she needed to finally tell a story that can put her in the Oval Office, and it appears to be a role she relishes.

Is it an overreach to bring up the spectere of nuclear war if Trump should win? Perhaps. Lyndon Johnson did it successfully against Barry Goldwater in 1964. However, Jimmy Carter failed to stop Ronald Reagan in 1980 with similar allusions that Reagan would be a “mad bomber” if elected.

Ronald Reagan handled this all with a smile and shook Carter off with an affable, “There you go again” during their debate. Barry Goldwater on the other hand held fast with his statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Even if you believe this is true, when a candidate is giving remarks extolling the virtue of any type of extremism, voters usually get concerned and look for an alternative. Typically a more stable one, even if quite flawed. There’s no way not to see that this was the Clinton campaign’s strategy.

According to the polls, Hillary Clinton’s convention speech worked.  She seems to have told a winning story that reached the voters.

Statistician Nate Silver reports:

Initial polls conducted after the Democratic National Convention suggest that Hillary Clinton has received a convention bounce. In fact, it appears likely that Clinton’s bounce will exceed Donald Trump’s, which measured at 3 to 4 percentage points. Thus, Clinton will potentially exit the conventions in a stronger position than she entered them, perhaps also making up for some of the ground she lost to Trump earlier in July.

Silver’s analysis also states that if the election for president were held today, Hillary Clinton has a 64% chance of winning. The week before, following Trump’s speech and before Clinton’s, the Republican nominee had been the favorite to win in this tracking survey.

Hillary Clinton’s improving poll numbers once again verify the value of a candidate having and telling a clear, concise story when they are running for office.

And please note, these polls were taken BEFORE Mr. Trump’s public feud with Khizir Khan, his comments about the fall election possibly being rigged, and the dust-ups with fellow Republicans House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator John McCain, and Senator Kelly Ayotte.

If you didn’t watch Secretary Clinton’s speech, or don’t have the time to view the entire speech now, here’s a video with the highlights.

And as always, I’d love to know what you think of this analysis in the comments section of the article.