February 16, 2016
Career Politician. Establishment. Washington Insider. Get labeled with one of these and you’re doomed. Insider is out, outsider is in. So what’s your next move if you have these words written all over your resume? Presidential candidates Marco Rubio and John Kasich are pushing one solution: own the title of "underdog."
After the Iowa caucus, Rubio chose language to suggest he’s the underdog candidate who's defying all odds.
“So this is the moment they said would never happen. For months, for months they told us we had no chance. For months they told us because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance. For months they told us because we didn't have the right endorsements or the right political connections, we had no chance…”
In these first few sentences of his speech, Rubio successfully pulls through the narrative that he’s an underdog. In reality, he’s THE establishment-backed candidate. Yet by positioning himself as an underdog, Rubio successfully shifts the conversation from “why ISN’T Marco Rubio winning?” to “Wow, look how far he’s come as an underdog.” Third place never sounded so sweet.
After the New Hampshire primary, Kasich took a page out of the same playbook. In his second place victory speech, he strung together a narrative of his political journey which echoed the same refrain: “they said it couldn’t be done” a total of six times as he told the story of his “underdog” career.
“…You know what? They said it couldn’t be done. They said it was too big, too hard, too much politics, and we proved them wrong again, and we balanced that federal budget. We balanced it.”
“And with all this — with all this, they said it couldn’t be done. And guess what? We proved them wrong again. And I’m going to take what we’ve learned here in the heartland, that band of brothers and sisters that I work with every day, and we are going to take the lessons of the heartland and straighten out Washington, D.C. and fix our country.”
In both their speeches, the underdog narrative is front and center. Why? Because people can always root for an underdog. A lifelong successful politician is simply not as emotionally resonant. Especially when establishment is the new dirty word. It’s a message that connects not because we like backing losers, but rather we like to see a person or team beat the odds. It’s a familiar, feel-good narrative that everyone can relate to. From a language perspective, it’s a great tactic – IF you can credibly own it.