At some point the Bigger Hammer says, Enough

August 24, 2012

Do campaigns matter? Or do historical forces determine the outcome of presidential elections? The title of The Bigger Hammer comes from McCain strategist Fred Davis, talking about the larger, uncontrollable factors that shaped the 2008 election. But is it really possible that billions of dollars and endless strategic maneuvering by campaigns doesn’t really matter?

The answer is, of course, a deep shade of unsatisfying gray. The daily gaffes that attract media attention like melted ice cream drawing a column of ants almost certainly don’t make a difference, unless they fit into a larger narrative about the candidate or his party. The same is true for ads, speeches, and vice presidential picks – they count for little on their own, but can serve to support a larger story that pushes a candidate towards, or away from, victory.

But even those bigger stories float on economic and historical waves. In 2008, as Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes in the film, John McCain was asking the people to give the Republican Party four more years after George Bush, and they just weren’t going to do it. A good campaign can do only enough to turn a narrow loss into a narrow victory. And, for candidates and their staff, that marginal difference makes all the effort worth it.

In 2012, it’s hard to tell which way the waves are pushing us. The economy is better, but not great. The memory of George Bush, and the Great Recession, still hangs over the debate, but it’s not as fresh. Most people like President Obama, and have an uneasy feeling about Bain Capital, but they want more jobs faster than they’ve come. It’s either 1992 or 1984. But hindsight cures all doubt, and by November 8th it will be obvious to every political commentator which way the Bigger Hammer was swinging the whole time. Just don’t ask us to know yet.

Check here for regular observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.

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