Lessons From a Swing State
February 19, 2007
As the 2008 presidential campaign draws closer, a new documentary encourages us to not forget the lessons of 2004. Swing State Ohio stands out from the glut of material on the 2004 election--and the decisive impact of Ohio's electoral votes--because of it doesn't have an ideological axe to grind. The film places viewers in the moment as the events of the election unfold, creating a unique, on-the-ground vitality.
Rather than recruiting talking heads to analyze the election after the fact, the filmmakers set up camp in Ohio beginning in September 2004, before it was clear that the state would be as pivotal. Without any press credentials, the four young producers--Jed Wolfington, Loren Larsen, Lauren Davison and Paul Davison--hit a campaign trail of their own, making connections, hustling for access and eventually scoring interviews with the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the since-elected Sen. Sherrod Brown and Ken Blackwell, Ohio's then secretary of state. However, the loudest voices in Swing State Ohio belong to the voters, who come to life in a colorful assortment of interviews held on farms and campuses, and in people's homes.
WireTap's Adam McKibbin caught up with Jed Wolfington (director/producer) and Loren Larsen (correspondent/producer) recently to discuss about objectivity, "wildcatting" and the importance of persistence.
WireTap: How did your vision for Swing State Ohio change between your initial concept for the film and the finished product?
Loren Larsen: We went into the process thinking we were just going to make a film about a swing state--as citizen journalists. I'm a political science major and I wanted to really see the process in action. When we started producing the film, it was on a very broad spectrum. [We were asking]: what makes a swing state swing? As we got a couple weeks in, we realized that [the presidential election] really was going to come down to Ohio, and we had to switch our focus to how the candidates were being perceived there.
WT: How did you decide how much of yourselves to put on screen, and how much of your personal politics to wear on your sleeve? For example, there's one memorable shot of Loren recoiling after Kerry's ill-fated comment about Cheney's daughter during the debates.
Jed Wolfington (producer/director): In that particular scene, Loren's reaction so perfectly represented the majority. I spoke to someone who saw the film at a showing in California, and--in his mind--that was the key moment in the election. We knew that the audience wasn't necessarily interested in hearing [Loren's and Lauren's] views outright, but if they could infer their views based on things that they did, we felt that would be genuine.
WT: Were Ohioans tired of the spotlight?
LL: The people that we spoke to were definitely not. They were frustrated--and, by the end, they were nervous. We went there in late September, and you could feel the fervor everywhere you went. Everyone was tuned in, and people were eager to talk to us. By the end, they became more wary of the candidates and the system, but they were still eager to speak.
Didn't caution flags go up when people found out that you were from places like New York, California and Washington?
LL: Yeah, a lot of times. We tried to explain to people that the goal was to be as bipartisan and objective as possible. Occasionally people would ask us about our political orientation, and ... when we said we didn't want to talk about that, nobody was buying it. But when we said, "This is where we stand, but we're genuinely open to hearing contrary opinions, and we want to make sure those different opinions are incorporated into the film," then people were really eager to speak to us and present the other side.
WT: Did you find that you got better answers by allowing people to answer without interference or by challenging them on certain points?
JW: That's a really good question. I think we'd always start with open-ended questions, and then, if they didn't go where we wanted them to go, we would be more specific in our questioning to really try to get them to explain themselves. That was often because we didn't know the nuances of the issues. We did our homework, but we weren't experts on any given matter--and that led to genuine, organic questions about things that we felt the audience would want to know themselves.
WT: As viewers, we're almost conditioned to expect craziness out of conservatives when they appear in documentaries by liberal filmmakers.
JW: That was something that we intended to do differently. Alexandra Pelosi just came out with the film Friends of God--about evangelicals, and it was exactly what you'd expect; I saw it in DC and half the time, the audience was laughing at the people on screen. [Viewers] are refreshed to find reasonable and sympathetic views from either side.
WT: It was definitely to your advantage to have spent time there; it separates the film from others that are more focused on talking heads analyzing the situation after the fact.
LL: Yeah, there were other film crews that came in two or three days before the election and let loose on Ohio with thousands of video cameras. But you can't make up for the time spent there, pounding the pavement and living there with the people.
WT: How much of a barrier was it to not be a credentialed member of the media?
JW: It's encouraging how we were able to do what we did without credentials. If you're persistent enough, you can get into these events. You need to know the right person to call, and you eventually you need to send them some letterhead with some sort of affiliation. But, for the most part, we found the process to be very transparent.
LL: We had a letter of interest from PBS; it wasn't a credential, but just showed that we had been in touch with PBS and they were interested. Each day we'd meet people based on people we'd met the previous day; the last group would vouch for us and get us into something even more important.
We went to Ohio and we didn't know a soul. We found a woman on Craigslist and we lived in her three-bedroom apartment for a month and a half. At first, we highlighted groups we wanted to target: pro-life groups, pro-choice groups, environmental groups, companies that were hiring and firing. We pounded on doors every day; some people let us in, and some didn't. But that's how we developed our credibility.
It's not good enough to call and leave a message on a machine, because no one is calling you back. Make yourself a respectable nuisance, so people understand that you mean it and you're not out to paint anyone in a poor light.
WT: Right, and you might as well ask, because who knows who will wind up talking to you.
LL: Exactly. If it's against your character to ask for favors, it can be a scary process. You really have to put yourself out there, because you get turned down--and sometimes in really impolite and ungracious ways. But other times you get a surprise response, and the fulfillment keeps you going. It gives you confidence to ask for the next one. I spoke to my dad regularly throughout the process, and he would say, "You guys are wildcatting your way through Ohio"--and that became a theme for us. We were scrappers, just wildcatting from interview to interview.
WT: You spent a fair amount of time observing the campaign headquarters of both parties. Did you notice a difference in the way they conducted their business?
JW: There is definitely an organizational distinction between getting in with the Democrats and getting in with the Republicans. It's very streamlined on the Republican side, and very decentralized on the Democratic side. You walk into a Republican campaign headquarters, and it's more of a corporate hierarchy. People know what their jobs are from top to bottom. You can walk into the Democratic campaign headquarters and have no idea who's in charge, and that's kind of the appeal, that energy and organized chaos.
LL: We thought that because of our political leanings, the Democrats would be much more open to helping us. In fact, it was completely the opposite; every time we wanted to get an interview with someone who was working for the Kerry campaign, we had to go through three different tiers of red tape and then sometimes it wouldn't happen at all.
WT: In your opinion, do the Democrats need to make a drastic change in their campaign strategy for 2008? Did they fail to get their message out effectively?
JW: You know, I think Kerry did a much better job than people gave him credit for. I think the Democratic message will be pretty straightforward and will build off the 2006 messaging. The war in Iraq will be the most important issue, unless there's some dramatic change in the next two years. The main thing that the Democrats are going to have to do, I think, is stay consistent. People are sick of spinning; even if they don't agree with the answer, they want to hear a straight answer.
Swing State Ohiois now available on DVD. The film will also be appearing in theaters thanks to a new deal with Brave New Theaters, an organization that has helped bring exposure to films like Iraq for Sale and The Ground Truth.
Adam McKibbin is an editor of TheRedAlert.com.