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You can view the trailer for the film The Campaign here

Over Thanksgiving while I was spending some quality family time with my dad and brother, I watched the 2012 movie The Campaign, starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, for the first time. I’m typically one of those people in the minority who thinks that Will Ferrell is in no way comical at all, but I surprisingly found this movie to be hilarious. As I was considering why this was, I knew that it was because the entire movie is a parody of political campaigns in general, highlighting aspects of them that we know occur but often seem to allow to slip our minds as we get caught up in all the excitement (Alexander). It’s so funny because although it stretches the truth about real campaigns and is absurd, it is the truth, and we know it.

The film has Ferrell playing Cam Brady, a conservative congressman representing North Carolina’s 14th District who is running unopposed for his 5th term. Two wealthy CEOs of a company, the Motch Brothers, want control of the district to build a factory there that employs low-wage Chinese workers and will decrease shipping costs for them. They decide they want Huggins (Galifianakis), an awkward and oblivious citizen that they can manipulate, to run against Brady. The entire movie is the story of the campaign between the two men and shows their many interactions and adventures on the trail in an extremely negative contest.

A main theme throughout the film is the extent to which money and special interests influence politics. The Motch brothers are the ones who wanted a candidate to run against Brady in the first place so that they could control regulations in the district, and they are financing Huggins’ election efforts. It is also interesting to note that for anyone who is knowledgeable about politics, the connection can be made that “the Motch brothers” sounds similar to “the Koch brothers,” who are two known, wealthy, financial contributors to conservative groups. There is also a scene in the movie where Brady is having lunch with multiple businessmen who he is trying to persuade to donate to his campaign in return for him representing their interests while he is in office. It is no secret that politicians accept money from individuals, businesses and other special interests in exchange for influence, but politicians strive to sweep it under the rug and keep this quiet. The amount of money needed to be successful in politics and win elections these days keeps climbing, and these mass funds usually cannot be raised simply by individual voter contributions.

The way in which politicians portray themselves to appeal to voters is another theme. Jeffrey Alexander explains how important the element of performance is in politics in his book The Performance of Politics and enforces that this performance is a constant lifestyle. In the film, appearance is essential for both candidates. The Motch brothers send an expert to transform Huggins into a more appealing political candidate and train him throughout the campaign. Huggins is forced to get a new haircut and wardrobe to make him look more like a politician and appeal more to the voters of the 14th District, and his home gets a makeover as well with new furniture and decorations (including a dead deer head mounted on the wall). Huggins also has to get rid of his two pugs, which Brady had framed as being Chinese “communist” dogs to freak out voters, and swap them for two more “American” dogs including a golden retriever. His family takes family photos in business attire to utilize for the campaign, and they are made out to appear like an average, happy-as-can-be American family in North Carolina. Huggins is taught to appear more confident, speak about certain talking points in debates and trash talk Brady. Though he is striving to appear more professional, Huggins pushes a plain folks appeal and does not downplay the fact that he is a political outsider. He uses the slogan “it’s a mess” to project the idea that he plans to go to Washington and clean up the system that has caused issues throughout the U.S. and for his district. Brady already knows how to live the politician lifestyle, and he is constantly concerned about his appearance, wearing suits with an American flag pin and obsessing over how “strong” his hair looks. His wife takes every opportunity to appear supportive to his political endeavors though she has her own agenda as well. This all reinforces that society has a preconceived notion that politicians are supposed to look and act a certain way, and if they don’t they are not taken seriously. Every aspect of their lives is scrutinized.

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One of the dirtiest elements of the fictional campaign is the negative advertising – though negative advertising itself is not fictional and is often quite dirty – and real advertisements are almost always targeted toward certain groups. One scene in specific where Brady and two members of his election team are discussing what television ads to run really hones in on these aspects of elections. They show ads in which common propaganda techniques such as name-calling, transfer, and card-stacking are utilized to influence voters, and they look at testing numbers to see which groups the ads are successful with. Brady is framed as extremely masculine to appeal to men and as a true American, and questions are raised about Huggins’ relationship with Al Qaeda. Huggins also creates his own dirty ads with one suggesting that Brady is a bad father figure to his son. There is contention in academia about the effects of negative advertising on whether or not voters believe the information in them, whether or not it affects turnout and how it affects their mindset about the election, and these topics are not ignored in the film.

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General interaction with citizens that the candidates hope to represent is also an important aspect of electoral politics represented. The movie begins with a montage of clips of Brady giving speeches at campaign stops where he keeps stating that various groups like farmers, veterans, women, and bankers “are this nation’s backbone,” reinforcing the idea that politicians say extremely similar things to different groups to display that that group is considered important to gain their support. The two men visit with various different groups and churches such as a synagogue, a traditional African American church, and a religious group that worships snakes to connect with them and win votes. As all politicians to do get their name out there and be seen, Brady and Huggins make appearances at community events and speak to voters after events. The popular baby-punching scene occurs after a debate when both men want to get positive media coverage of them connecting with voters by shaking hands and kissing babies – a tactic used by all politicians to seem like they are forming more personal relationships with their constituents. 

Even though The Campaign is a parody of actual political campaigns, we laugh because it reflects the truths of what really goes on behind the scenes and many motives behind the actions of politicians. The ideas expressed about special interest influence, the importance of performance, advertising, and voter interaction are very similar to those in real life. Everything they do is to win the affection of voters and win their election. Technology has made it possible to know almost every move politicians make, which can either have positive or negative effects for candidates based upon what they present to voters and how they react if they make a mistake. 

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Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2010. Print.

‘The Campaign.” IMDB. December 5, 2013. Web. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1790886/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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