...So Goes the Nation

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Still from the film ....So Goes the Nation.

To judge by their handling of the Foley scandal, the Republican leadership in Washington appears to be pinning its hopes for a midterm victory on a tired but true maxim: however bad it looks for us, the Democrats will screw up worse somehow. The spectacle of an ongoing G.O.P. meltdown (for a party not known to be fans of mass transit, they sure do like throwing people under buses) makes it hard to believe that the ruling party can continue its power hold on power. But those who think the results of November's elections are a foregone conclusion would do well to watch a new documentary about the 2004 race in Ohio, ...So Goes the Nation.

Since 1960, every elected President has won the Buckeye state, and in the history of the U.S. no Republican candidate has ever taken the White House without winning Ohio. Thus the political wisdom "As goes Ohio, so goes the nation," which explains why directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo set up cameras across the state in 2004 as both parties put Ohio in the cross hairs.

Despite a conservative bent — its Governor and both U.S. Senators were, and still are, Republicans — a depressed economy and dissatisfaction with the Iraq war made the Kerry campaign hopeful they could put Ohio in the win column. More than hopeful, really. "Look at the advantages that my party had," says Democratic consultant Paul Begala, a Kerry adviser who's just one of the swarm of pundits interviewed by the filmmakers. "We had a soft economy, we had a very unpopular President...we had an unpopular occupation...and we had a candidate who had a terrific record of personal heroism in combat." Republicans saw the exact same problems. Chief Republican campaign strategist Matthew Dowd recounts how people would ask him about Ohio all the time: "It's economically strapped and it's been effected dramatically, how is it that you guys are even surviving?"

It's at this moment that ...So Goes the Nation becomes a primer on how to win an election. The Republicans — especially Karl Rove — have achieved an almost mythological reputation for their campaign savvy, but So Goes exposes this brilliance as, essentially, a strategy based on acting like an adult. The G.O.P.'s major achievements: They stayed on message. They didn't leak. We expect the same from grade schoolers. Yes, this basic competence was combined with a certain amount of ruthlessness, but ruthlessness is not what the Democrats lacked. While willing to "fight with their fists," the Kerry campaign comes across as confused at both a macro and micro level. Given little direction, the volunteers marvel at their colleague who has found an actual "undecided voter." As the volunteer later explains, the prospect is more than just undecided — he's unhinged from reality. "I gave him all the information, the whole talk, at which point he said, I'm probably too high to remember any of that but I appreciate it nonetheless.'"

The decision to target undecided voters turns out to be the least obvious of the many Kerry mistakes ticked off by consultants on both sides. There was the decision not to go negative. (Mocked by Paul Begala with an eye-roll worthy of Paul Lynde.) There was the decision not to respond immediately to the Swift Boats for Truth ads ("John Kerry should have gotten pissed" says one former volunteer). There was the decision to leave get-out-the-vote operations to independent groups — known as 527s — rather than let the central operation mastermind the whole thing.

Republican strategists, for the most part, marvel at their own good fortune. Bush-Cheney ad man Mark McKinnon admits the campaign was more scared of Howard Dean than John Kerry. And not only did the Democrats nominate him, someone let him go windsurfing! To be fair, the G.O.P. did make some of its own luck. McKinnon's tick-tock reconstruction of how the Bush-Cheney team baited Kerry into his infamous "I voted for the 86 million before I voted against it" statement should be transcribed, laminated and stuck to the forhead of next Democratic nominee.

There's probably a reason Ohio has played the durable role it has in presidential politics. But despite the punditry and fancy talk about micro targeting, the movie doesn't really get at its central question. Instead it shows that the rules of politics remain pretty simple: stay on message and don't say stupid stuff. Advice that's as straightforward as good steak — and just as easy to screw up.