Three Campaign Coordinators on the Movie ‘Election’

Strategists from the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Joe Walsh and Hillary Clinton offer up the real-life parallels to this classic dark comedy

While the election-fixing civics teacher played by Matthew Broderick may be at the center of the 1999 comedy Election, it’s the students running for class president who are most memorable in the film. There’s Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, a studious, unpopular overachiever whose qualifications for the office are so numerous that she feels unapologetically entitled to it. Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler is her main opponent — an incredibly popular, empty-headed jock, who is well-meaning, but only runs because Broderick’s character convinces him to. 

And then there’s the anti-establishment, “burn-it-all-down” candidate that is Paul’s sister, Tammy (played by Jessica Campbell), who only enters the race because she’s pissed that her brother stole her girlfriend.

Meant to be a satire on the cutthroat nature of politics, 21 years after its release, Election is a cult classic, so who better to talk about why it’s stuck around than real-life campaign strategists?

On How True Politics is to Election

Alexandra Owens, campaign coordinator for NY Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and volunteer for Elizabeth Warren: I feel like there are a lot of things that are relatable in the movie, at least coming from the perspective of New York City politics. Some of the personalities that I’ve seen in local politics here reflect the characters that are in the movie. Like, Tammy’s a really good example of somebody who’s an anti-establishment candidate who just wants to shake things up. Then there are those who have worked really hard to get there and they feel like they deserve the position, but they don’t know how to get people on board with their campaign — their messaging is off and they’re doing it more for themselves, not because the community needs them. And then there’s somebody like Paul, who’s going in with the right intentions, but politically, he hasn’t developed his platform.

Lucy Caldwell, Campaign Manager for Walsh2020: A similarity is that people don’t take elections very seriously, neither in the movie nor in real life. A dissimilarity that makes for a rather dire reality is that our real-life elections have really far-reaching consequences. 

I remember in 2016, several people were making comparisons to the movie Election, but I wasn’t so sure about that. While there might be shades of Hillary in Tracy Flick, I don’t think there was much resemblance between Paul and Donald Trump. Paul may be a moron, but Trump is more like a sociopathic, evil moron. There are a lot of Pauls in office though — guys who are generally kind, but possibly damaging because they can’t really see beyond this rich, white-guy life of privilege. 

Michael Trujillo, Democratic strategist to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016: After rewatching the movie for the first time in years, I felt like there was a lot of Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton energy to Tracy Flick. She was so well prepared and in virtually every club, and that speaks to the preparedness of Warren or Clinton, as they were both super qualified and would be ready on day one. The jock she runs against reminds me of a young Joe Biden — he’s just slapping people on the back and being the super-friendly guy about town. And his little sister has a lot of Bernie Sanders energy to her, like when she says, “If you elect me, we’re never going to have these assemblies ever again” — that’s a very Bernie Sanders thing to say.

On How Much of Politics is a Popularity Contest

Owens: It’s very much a popularity contest. I have friends who are very deep into politics, and I have friends who are still trying to figure things out. For the latter, I think people might support a candidate simply on messaging or because they’re going with the crowd. But with those more involved, they might see through that, and though a candidate may have a popular following, they may not quite be there yet with what they’ve accomplished.

Caldwell: A lot of it is a popularity contest. For instance, in Iowa — and I’m sure in other places this year — one of the most effective ways that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was getting people out to events was by bringing around her golden retriever for people to pet, which is such an inconsequential feature. Michael Bloomberg is basically rolling out amazing food spreads to get voters to events. So even though we can laugh at the idea of Tracy Flick trying to win people over with cupcakes, even in elections as consequential as this one, people are motivated by things that are different than what we might hope.

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Trujillo: It’s very much a popularity contest. Bernie Sanders walked into this campaign with fairly high name ID because of his campaign in 2016. Obama was the cool candidate in 2008 because of celebrities endorsing him. I think people like Hillary and Elizabeth Warren try to present policy ideas and make that popular, and now Bernie’s done that with Medicare for all. So, a lot of it is a popularity contest, for sure.

On Whether They’ve Ever Wanted to Pull Down an Opponent’s Signs

Owens: I would say no. In large part because if somebody from your candidate’s campaign is caught tearing down posters, that reflects poorly on the candidate.

Caldwell: No, I haven’t. It’s criminal activity in some municipalities. Also, while signs can make supporters feel good, there’s not a huge amount of evidence to suggest signs make much of a difference.

Trujillo: Have I been tempted to tear down signs? I’ve probably done it more than my fair share! There was one election I was working on as a young 20-year-old where, not only did we tear down the signs, but I came up with what I thought was a genius idea: I left the opponent’s signs up, but I super glued a completely different message on them. Because at some point, your trunk gets full and you don’t want to be caught with all this evidence. I’d rather just make a negative message and super glue it onto their sign and then move onto the next sign. That way, if they try to tear it off, it just ruins their sign and they take it down. It makes life a lot easier. 

On Prayer in Politics

Owens: People are definitely praying to win. Primary day and general election day, you are a total bag of nerves, and I’ve witnessed people praying just before the numbers come in, so that’s totally true. 

Trujillo: If your name is on the ballot, it’s probably the most public thing you’ve ever put yourself out there for. You’ve knocked on the doors of potentially hundreds if not thousands of voters. You’ve had a lot of conversations in people’s living rooms and backyards. So, after all of that, yeah, I would pray. I don’t think there’s a single candidate I’ve ever worked with that didn’t pray to whatever God they believe in.

On Who They Were Rooting For

Owens: I think Paul. Even though he isn’t quite ready, I think he’s in it for the right reasons, whereas Tracy has a lot of self-interest in why she is running.

Trujillo: Back in 1999, I was probably rooting for the jock. 

Caldwell: Tracy, of course. Tracy Flick is basically my spirit animal — I think a lot of ambitious women would tell you that. Tracy Flick, as irritating as the Matthew Brodericks of the world may find her, is a very determined person who is willing to work hard and do what needs to be done. It doesn’t win her friends, but she probably takes more flak than she deserves.

In the movie, there’s not a lot to admire in any of the characters. For instance, even if you think Tracy is deserving of victory, she’s obviously kind of an uptight bitch who you wouldn’t want to have a beer with. On the other hand, Paul is probably a person you’d want to have a beer with, and that’s the kind of metric that we often use and that voters are told to use, even though that’s a terrible metric for electing people. That said, likability does matter. If we elect someone who makes people’s skin crawl, they’re not going to be very good at coalition building, so it’s a fine line.

On Voting For Yourself

Owens: Yes, you absolutely should vote for yourself. Every single vote counts, and you wouldn’t be running if you didn’t think you could win. You could really like the other person, but if you voted against yourself, you’re letting down the people who supported you and donated to you. It’s rare that someone would vote against themselves.

Caldwell: Of course you should! If you’re going out and asking other people to give you their money and to give you their time, it’s disloyal to them to not vote for yourself.

Trujillo: I thought it was absurd when Paul thought it was unethical to vote for himself. I mean, if you don’t believe that you are the most qualified person to run for office, you probably shouldn’t run.