Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mr. Smith

Where are the little people in Washington? I just watched a documentary called "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington?" about a grassroots campaign in Missouri in 2004. It's an incredible vision of how politics is being played in our country and how much impact such a movement can have. But it also showed what name recognition, money, and political connection can do.

In the documentary, the underdog Jeff Smith plans a run for U.S. Congress, plans a campaign with his friends and students, and goes door-to-door to meet the people he would represent. His opponent, named Carnahan, has a family history in politics, millions of dollars, and national family connections. Smith runs a clean campaign, while his opponent attacks him in ads on T.V., radio, and print. Coming up on the election day, it looks as if it could go either way. In the end, however, the race goes to Carnahan, despite the fact that he didn't win any of the major districts.

The movie brings up a good point about our politics today. People seem to be swayed by a name rather than a message, and are very susceptible to costly ad campaigns and negative politics. In college, I did a study on the effects of television programming to see how well people could remember ads they saw when shown a logo of various companies. The results indicated that people are far more likely to recall the ads they see when they are shown visuals that they associate with the company or group, even if that visual was not used in the ad. We tend to remember the first few (primacy effect) and last few (recency effect) items when shown a list in succession, such as with television ads. Combining images with ads placed at the beginning or end of a commercial segment has a strange way of embedding images and names in our minds to be recalled later.

In the documentary, Mr. Smith goes door-to-door. He sends out documentaries and pamphlets, but doesn't use media to spread his message via commercials. Nor does he print ads in many, if any, print sources, as opposed to his opponent. The results showed that Mr. Smith carried the areas where he campaigned the most, but lost in the areas he didn't get to.

It shouldn't be just the millionaires, the ones with connections, and those who are willing to throw dirt that get into public office to represent us. I'd say to vote third party, but I also believe a vote has to count for something. It's worth too much to throw away on a candidate that you know cannot win. So, I urge people to learn about the underdogs of the Republican and Democratic parties, get to know the underdogs, and give them a chance. We may yet see change in Washington. I can't help being optimistic for Mr. Smith.

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