Friday, December 4, 2009

Campaigns on TV

Part 1 of our 5-part series: “Hollywood Does Politics”

It would be impossible to cover every television show that has ever tried to portray a political campaign, but today we’ll give you a synopsis of the campaigns on some of the most popular programs over the past decade.

“The Wire” - Season 4 (HBO)

At the end of “The Wire’s” third season, Councilman Tommy Carcetti makes the decision to run for mayor of Baltimore. He hires a friend from law school, Theresa D’Agotino, who now works as a fundraiser in Washington DC, to be his campaign advisor. As the fourth season opens, Carcetti is in the midst of a difficult primary battle between himself, incumbent Mayor Clarence Royce, and another Councilman, Tony Gray. Both Royce and Gray are African-American.

The ways in which “The Wire” addresses political campaigns are more sophisticated than in most television shows. Of course Carcetti is seen making the obligatory stops to a senior center, or prepping and participating in debates. There are also some scenes of “family life,” where he chooses playing a game with his daughter over being on time for a campaign event.

Yet, the show incorporates elements of the campaign that go beyond the hackneyed or formulaic. For instance, the Carcetti campaign uses Tony Gray to split the black vote in the primary, thereby insuring that Carcetti has a better chance to win. When Gray becomes bitter about his position – and the way he is being exploited – Carcetti’s campaign manager tells Gray to consider the future; Gray may not win the primary this year, but he will have raised his name recognition enough to win a race for state legislature or US Congress in the next term.

The realities of campaigning for a position in an urban area are also explored. Carcetti and his team recognize that organizations such as the Police Unions, neighborhood associations, and churches are invaluable allies that ultimately decide elections in the city of Baltimore. Carcetti is seen making deals with some of these organizations who, even though they cannot openly break ties with the incumbent mayor, give him their tacit support.

Finally, “The Wire” also chronicles the difficult “endorsement dance” that a campaign must do with existing elected officials whose support, and voter contact lists, are crucial to winning a close election. Throughout the course of the Carcetti campaign, Tommy makes deals with various officials who have been either alienated or betrayed by the existing mayor, promising them that they will have a voice in his administration. Carcetti even has a pivotal encounter with state senator Clay Davis, a recurring corrupt politician on the show. Davis secures a $20,000 check for his re-election campaign from Carcetti by promising, not to endorse him, but to just ensure that the votes in his district are evenly split between Mayor Roye and Carcetti. He also promises that he will put some “walking around money” in the street on Election Day. Though Davis is clearly hedging his bets against the possibility that Carcetti might lose, Carcetti realizes that Davis’s influence on the African American voters in his district is too important to turn down.

The show also explores the sometimes-facile nature of our election decisions. Though it seems that Obama patented the idea of “change,” many candidates run on the platform of shifting the status quo – then find that shift almost impossible to make once they’re elected. Carcetti, who is losing to Royce in the polls by over ten points, gains momentum when he calls out Royce over the murder of a witness in a pending drug case. Carcetti had set aside city funding for the protection of witnesses, and claimed that Royce’s misuse of the funding was another example of the mayor’s failed policies. The bump in the polls that Carcetti gets from this standoff with the mayor gets him key endorsements from city leaders, and ultimately wins him the election.

However, the show delivers an ironic postscript when Detective Kima Greggs – another regular on the show – discovers that the witness who Carcetti used as an example of the corruption of the Royce administration was not murdered, but was merely the unintended victim of a stray bullet. Carcetti’s victory was based on a technicality of sorts. This lone note of discord only increases once Carcetti realizes that he has inherited a host of problems and must work within the system he once vilified to solve them.

“Heroes” - Season 1 (NBC)

If “The Wire’s” portrayal of campaigns was one of the most sophisticated, then one of the least sophisticated portrayals comes from the first season of “Heroes”. While the campaign at hand is only a small story in the larger saga, it is still painful for a campaign person to see the writers and producers get it so wrong.

One of the many heroes on the show - Nathan Petrelli - is running for Congress in lower Manhattan. A former prosecutor and a man that can fly, Petrelli is willing to take ethically dubious paths to winning his election. For the first few episodes he is constantly behind in the polls, willing to go so far as to sell his family down the river when he feels it will help him.

By the middle of the season, the campaign becomes a lot less relevant, but a few notable moments stick out for those of us who have worked on Congressional campaigns.

To begin, his campaign office is a bit larger than one would expect for a Congressional campaign, even in a dense area like lower Manhattan. There are no volunteers there at any point, and less office noise than one would expect to see in that setting. It also seems strange that Petrelli offers his brother Peter (who is currently discovering his own powers) a job as Volunteer Coordinator for the final stretch of the campaign.

There is an interesting scene in which he holds a campaign fundraiser in the office - which he claims will make him look “fiscally responsible” - which, between its excessive classiness and short time before the election, seems unrealistic. But the least realistic part about the scene is that they invited the press, with TV cameras and everything - something we’ve never seen at a political fundraiser.

Other parts to shake your head at are scenes in which his family makes strategy decisions with him (the campaign staff is totally absent) and when he gets a $4 million contribution from one of his father’s clients (about 850 times the legal limit for federal races) which he feels comfortable admitting to a journalist later on.

But by far the most ridiculous part of the entire season was the fact that Petrelli - again, a Congressional candidate - had Secret Service detail, something only presidential candidates have the option to receive. Beyond that, however, these body guards are talking politics with him - giving him advice and suggesting that they are part of the campaign.

While “Heroes” is a delightful show for many reasons, the campaign politics portrayed in Season 1 are obviously based on bad political movies and previous Hollywood productions than any actual Congressional campaign.

“The West Wing” - Season 7 (NBC)

The seventh and final season of one of America’s most popular political programs focuses around the last year of the Jed Barlet presidency, and the ongoing campaign to replace him.

Fictional candidates Rep. Matthew Santos (D-TX) - who takes a miraculous victory to win the Democratic nomination - and Sen. Arnold Vinick (R-CA) face-off with 105 days to go before the election at the beginning of Season 7. Over the first few episodes, both candidates jump at opportunities to define their campaigns, dealing with a diverse arrange of issues including boarder security, accountable government, abortion, evolution vs. creationism, and more - like any presidential candidate would.

One interesting aspect of the race is how the sitting Democratic president - Bartlet - and his White House affect the Santos campaign. A series of press leaks from the White House lead the Republican Vinick campaign to stress the importance of integrity. Then there’s how the news of the day can sometimes be an uncontrollable negative factor for a campaign, as is the case when a California power plan malfunctions and Vinick - a nuclear power supporter - has to explain why he supports what now seems like a dangerous energy option.

But despite what the casual viewer would gather from Season 7, it doesn’t really get too deep into the world of campaigns. While the candidates are frequently making speeches, following polls, running and reacting to political TV ads, there is never really any exploration of the “behind the scenes” part of a campaign. In fact, much of it is actually the sort of campaigning that the typical voter could see in a real-life presidential race.

“Monk” - Season 3 Episode 15 (USA)

In the 44th episode of “Monk” - a show about the cases of Adrian Monk, a San Francisco consultant-detective with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Monk’s assistant Natalie runs for School Board. It is an interesting episode because parts of it are very unrealistic of campaigns - but other parts are a little too realistic.

For one thing, Natalie doesn’t just have an office and volunteers for her campaign - she has a huge office and seemingly hundreds of volunteers! This is obviously pretty over-the-top for a School Board race. Granted, it was necessary for the plot - a copying machine gets shot up by an unknown villain who everyone believes is trying to assassinate Natalie. Monk uses his “gift/curse” to go to work and try to solve the mystery. Nonetheless, a basic understanding about large vs. small campaigns will make one raise an eyebrow during this episode.

Later on Natalie and her opponent face-off in a debate in front of a jam-packed auditorium - again, for a School Board race.

Some parts of the episode - on the other hand - are so realistic it’s painful. Anyone who has worked on a campaign will tell you they love their volunteers, but some are so bad at the tasks given to them that it’s downright frustrating. In one scene, Natalie convinces Monk to sit down and do some volunteer work.

His job is to help the other volunteers fold campaign literature and stick it in an envelope to mail. It’s a simple task, but Monk’s OCD makes him do it ever so slow. The campaign staff tries to give him pointers, but he refuses. As campaign workers, it is absolutely hilarious, and makes us cringe at the same time.

Like every episode of “Monk”, it might not be completely believable, but it is a lot of fun to watch nonetheless.

“The Simpsons” - Season 9 Episode 22 (FOX)

In one of “The Simpsons’” most classic episodes - “Trash of the Titans” - Homer is driven to run for Springfield Sanitation Commissioner after a few garbage men cut off his trash-collecting services.

Marge forges his name in an apology letter to the incumbent Commissioner, which prompts Homer to go to the Sanitation Commission office and demand his apology back. After fighting with the incumbent, Homer decides to do things his own way and run for the office.

He starts by trying to steal the show at a U2 concert, using the event as a campaign opportunity. Let’s just say it doesn’t work. Later he inadvertently comes up with his campaign slogan “can’t someone else do it?” which he uses to rally in support from his fellow Springfield voters who he feels are asking the same questions about their trash needs. The message: “the garbage man can!” He ends up leading a chorus/parade to a parody version of “the Candy Man Can” and wins the race.

In the end, he finds out he can’t actually live up to his campaign promises - the Sanitation Commission simply can’t take care of everything. It’s the lesson he learns in this episode.

Okay, so “Trash of the Titans” had no realistic campaigning whatsoever. Never has a candidate won an election by spontaneous singing and dancing through the streets. But in the end, that’s what makes the episode so great. It’s an important thing to remember - Hollywood is not going to go for what’s real as often as they will for what’s entertaining. And this episode of “The Simpsons” reminds us of that better than any other show could.

Coming Tuesday: Do Political Movies Lean Left or Right?

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