It's a sign of how heated political nonfiction films have become of late that, a few minutes into the new documentary ...So Goes the Nation, one is surprised not only by lack of cheesy graphics and horror-show music, but also the presence of (gasp!) Republicans. In putting together their account of the heated contest for Ohio during the 2004 presidential election, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo make a concerted and welcome effort to avoid the sloganeering and cheerleading that too often afflicts documentaries of this kind. (Indeed, the lack of right-wing docs getting distribution could be used to prove conservative paranoia about the liberal media; either that or Republicans are too busy winning elections to make films.) What they've done is a filmed text on political hardball, with operatives from both sides and all levels of the hierarchy putting in their two cents about what worked and what didn't. While the result will likely sicken Democrats still woozy from that powerfully disappointing evening, it is nevertheless fascinating viewing for anybody interested in the nuts and bolts of elections, and the people who keep it going.

The film's narrative is supplied by a blizzard of marquee-name operatives ("Meet the Press" and CNN regulars, most of them) from the Democratic and Republican parties, national committee chairmen Terry McAuliffe and Ed Gillespie, campaign managers Mary Beth Cahill and Ken Mehlman, and seasoned operatives like Paul Begala and Matthew Dowd. In a rapid-fire editing scheme, they dispense their nuggets of hard-earned wisdom in between news footage and testimony from rank-and-file party volunteers whose wide-eyed passion for politics seems practically quaint in comparison. As the film counts down the weeks, days and hours to Election Day, the party bigwigs jaw (with the benefit of hindsight) strategy while we see the party foot soldiers working the phones and going door to door in the state that would turn out to decide the whole election.

...So Goes the Nation takes its name from the truism that Ohio is the bellwether state, that with its mix of ethnicities and political beliefs, it serves as a litmus test for the nation: As goes Ohio, so goes the nation. Given how divided the Ohio electorate seems to have been, it became more imperative for the GOP to hone their message down to the bare essentials. While Democrats spread themselves thin to the point of invisibility over a range of micro-issues, the Republicans (whose advisers admit on film that most voters intellectually disagreed with them) stuck to pounding home one idea: Stalwart George W. Bush will keep you safe, and elitist flip-flopper John Kerry won't.

At times, the film (which remains impressively nonpartisan throughout) is little more than a litany of Democratic mistakes-but that's simply because there were so many to choose from, as the Democrats readily cop to in the film. There is the decision to listen to focus groups who claim they don't like negative ads (as Begala laughingly points out, everybody claims that when of course it isn't true) and refrain from attacking the President, only to have Republicans spend their four-day convention lacerating Kerry nonstop. There is the painful cultural tone-deafness of the organizers who bring in a busload of random B-list celebrities to get out the vote, as though Chad Lowe will save them. There is the fundamental lack of organization, compared to the Republicans' well-honed armies of pumped-up volunteers armed with reams of information from pinpoint-targeted databases. Most important was the Republicans' ability to stay almost frighteningly on-message with each one of their few, relentlessly hammered-home talking points; as Bush/Cheney media director Mark McKinnon says, "A flawed strategy that is consistent beats a good but inconsistent strategy."

The idea that the 2004 election was decided not because the winning party had the better ideas but because they simply articulated them more simply and rapidly is not a cheerful one. But instead of going cynical, bemoaning the realpolitik of modern-day campaigning, the filmmakers go instead for realistic optimism. ...So Goes the Nation ends in dismay and disarray for the Democrats, as early projections of victory turn to defeat, but also with hope. The Democratic volunteer looking into the future and wondering not about the loss but what he can do next, the man who took his son out of school just to stand in line with him all day in the rain to see what elections are all about, they give one a refreshing pause after all the hardball talk and dispassionate gamesmanship of the high-ranking hired guns.

It's like the Woody Allen line about how 80 percent of success is showing up; as illustrated here, democracy is about putting in the time, which the Republicans did. This is politics for grownups.