Friday, December 11, 2009

The Best Campaign Documentaries

Part 3 of our 5-part series: "Hollywood Does Politics"

On Tuesday, we’ll be showing you cases in which Hollywood fiction yields error on the subject of political campaigns. But what kinds of movies are going to show campaigning most accurately? Documentaries, of course.

Here are five of our favorite political campaign documentaries…

“The War Room” (1993)

“The War Room” takes an in depth and insightful look at the 1992 Clinton for President campaign and how it transformed how political campaigns are managed.

Although this movie does not give away any of the campaign secrets, it does dive into the inner workings of the campaign from the lowly days before the New Hampshire primary, the bus tours across the country, into the spin rooms of debate night, and all the way to the successful night of November 3, 1992.

James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and the rest of the senior staff produce an exhilarating journey that every politico has to see. This movie primarily focuses on Carville and the yin to Carville's yang: Stephanopoulos. No other campaign before hand was willing to have cameras follow them around 24 hours a day taping their every move.

This act of transparency showed how the campaign rebutted the attacks of George H. W. Bush, Gennifer Flowers, and the media's perceptions of Clinton's character flaws. This movie captures how much enthusiasm and pain staffers go through during the long hours seen on the campaign trail without the usual spin doctors that are seen through our television screens every election cycle.

We see how “The War Room” was managed with kitchy signs on the wall, and the infamous, “it's the economy, stupid” saying on a white board. This movie is a home run, and should be in the queue of your NetFlix account.


“Street Fight” (2005)

A chronicle of Cory Booker’s first mayoral campaign in the city of Newark, NJ, “Street Fight” documents just how tough urban politics can be.

Booker - a freshman City Council member at the time - was challenging 16-year incumbent Sharpe James, who Booker argued was sitting on top of decades of failed promises. James argued that Booker - who was from the suburbs originally - was a carpetbagger.

The race got dirty fast. James didn’t exactly have a sense of choosing his words carefully and frequently said that Booker was white, Jewish, and Republican - none of which were true. He also suggested that Booker took money from the Ku Klux Klan, and was being propped up by a Jewish media conspiracy. He said these things so much, in fact, that people started to believe the outlandish claims. Booker, meanwhile, went with conventional political wisdom in his message, arguing that these attacks were meant to distract voters from the failings of James policies.

James also frequently misused his powers as mayor for the campaign, instructing police to illegally tear down Booker signs and directed other city departments to go after Booker supporters for several frivolous ordinance violations.

The film also documents the importance of race in urban politics. Booker received endorsements from race-interested author Cornell West and director Spike Lee, while James got help from civil rights leaders Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In the end, James won the 2002 race with a 53% - 47% margin. Booker announced his 2006 candidacy a year later.

This is, simply put, a must-see for any campaign worker who wants to get a feel for just how intense urban campaigns can be.


“Please Vote for Me” (2007)

Chinese democracy? Sounds like a paradox, but in “Please Vote for Me” a Chinese micro-democracy shows us just how natural campaigning can be.

The film focuses on a primary-school election for Class Monitor. Meant to be part of a civics lesson about different political systems, one Chinese teacher decides not to appoint a Class Monitor herself, but rather nominate three candidates for the students to choose from.

They do not even understand what democracy is, but acting it out gives them a crash course. The 8-year-old students begin plotting amongst each other to disrupt their opponents’ candidacies. Almost immediately the campaigning becomes vicious. Taunting begins and the candidates are often reduced to tears.

What’s really surprising, however, is how the parents treat the election. They effectively act as campaign consultants, teaching their kids oratory skills, to stay on message, use effective smears, and even count their votes like we do with Voter ID.

In a great and memorable scene, one candidate attacks the incumbent Class Monitor (I’m not making this up) during a debate for being so strict that it makes him a dictator. The other aruges that he - like a parent - must be strict for the sake of obedience.

This film is perfect for anyone interested in political science. It both demonstrates how all campaigns work similarly regardless of how advanced a democracy may be, and how politics in general look on a micro-level. We highly recommend seeing it.


“Our Brand is Crisis” (2005)

Just because campaign politics works similarly from democracy to democracy, one cannot expect all political systems to work the same way.

That’s the lesson to be learned in “Our Brand is Crisis”, where James Carville’s consulting firm - Greenville Carville Shrum (GCS) - works for moderate Bolivian presidential candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (or “Goni”).

Goni is behind in the polls when he hires GCS. The consultants immediately begin message tests, focus groups, and other tactics to see where they can steer him right. In strategy meetings, Carville and the others determine that they must portray his main opponent as a threat to Bolivia because of his wealth and military background.

It’s a tough and dynamic race in which public opinion is constantly shifting. In the end, Goni secures a narrow victory with about 22%.

However, 22% is hardly a consensus, as GCS finds out later. Goni faces insurmountable criticism, especially during a subsequent gas conflict in which populists create an uproar over plans to export natural gas - Bolivia’s most abundant resource - rather than use it at home. Protesters, led by current President Evo Morales, eventually convince Goni to resign. Today Goni lives in exile in the U.S.

This film teaches an important lesson about the errors of looking at third world campaign politics through an American lens. We recommend it to anyone interested in international politics.


“Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” (2006)

When longtime Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) announced his retirement in 2004, a large field of candidates came in to secure the Democratic nomination and become the new Congressperson. One of those candidates was Jeff Smith.

The film focuses on Smith’s candidacy and the young, inexperienced staff he hires. Smith is young himself, has a very high voice, and is very, very progressive. He has very little political experience while his opponents are well funded with plenty of name recognition. Everyone - including Smith’s parents and some of his staff - think he’s crazy to run.

However, Smith gains traction and attention - even securing an endorsement from future DNC Chairman Howard Dean. In the end, Smith comes in second in the primary, narrowly losing to the most well-known candidate.

The tactics the campaign uses are well-documented. They primarily focus on field operations and tracking the support of voters in the district. The film also explores press work and fundraising. “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” is so in-depth regarding the campaign tactics that it might not even make sense to the average person - much of the film is really only relevant to those who have worked on campaigns.

But this is a great film for the average person if they want to learn about the nature of campaign politics - it’s exhausting, stressful, and often enough it’s unrewarding. We highly recommend watching it to get a sense of that unlike anywhere else - except for actually working on a campaign.


Coming Tuesday: “When Hollywood Gets It Wrong”


WAYLA would like to thank Brad Wojciechowski for his contributions to this blog post. Brad is the founder of Forward Solutions Group, a political consulting firm in Madison, WI. He specializes in fundraising and political development and has extensive experience on the frontlines of the most successful political campaigns. His particular interests are local campaigns and issues, because they have the most effect on the day to day lives of Americans.

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