Political campaign specialist Marvin Lucas (Boyle) recruits Bill McKay (Redford) to run for a U.S. Senate seat in California as a Democrat against incumbent Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Bill is a lawyer and left-wing legal activist who happens to be the son of popular former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Bill is reluctant to run a campaign that would force him to abandon his principles, but Lucas reassures him that he won't have to abandon his principles because he doesn't have a shot at winning—Lucas even goes so far as to write the promise "YOU LOSE" on a matchbook. Since Bill doesn't have a prayer, he can say what he wants and raise awareness of liberal issues.
However, after the campaign gets off to a slow start and polling indicates that Bill will not only lose but get blown out, Lucas starts urging him to moderate his views to appeal more to swing voters. This starts to work, not only closing the gap between Bill and Sen. Jarmon, but attracting Bill's previously uninterested father into backing his campaign. As Bill's underdog campaign looks more and more like it has a chance, he must make hard choices about how much to compromise himself and what he really believes in.
The Candidate is a trenchant political satire that is as relevant today as it was when it was released back in The '70s.
- Attack of the Political Ad: Late in the campaign, a clearly panicking Crocker Jarmon relases a negative ad lampooning Bill's inexperience, portraying him as a schoolboy standing on a literal soapbox.
- Bittersweet Ending: Bill wins the election, but at the cost of compromising much of what he once stood for.
- Call-Back: The night before Election Day, when it's clear Bill actually might win, and after he's made a lot of compromises, he finds Marvin's matchbook with "YOU LOSE" written on it.
- The Cameo:
- Natalie Wood As Herself, an admirer of Bill McKay. See Celebrity Paradox below.
- Various websites say that Groucho Marx has an uncredited walk-on cameo in this film but there's no hard evidence to that effect.
- There are a host of politicians and media people that appear as themselves, enough to fill up a whole screen in the closing credits. U.S. Senators Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, Real Life then-rivals for the 1972 Democratic nomination (McGovern won, only to be destroyed by Nixon), are seen at a Democratic Party banquet that Bill speaks at.
- Celebrity Paradox: As noted above, Natalie Wood appears As Herself, and says she's a big fan of everything Bill stands for. She does not wonder why Bill looks so much like her co-star in Inside Daisy Clover and This Property Is Condemned.
- Chirping Crickets: During one of Bill's stump speeches, The Reveal shows him greeted by a nearly-empty high school gymnasium. Only the rubbing of a single chair against the floor breaks the deathly silence.Bill: Any comments? Suggestions? (beat) Dirty jokes?
- Corpsing: Bill keeps breaking out in laughter when he's distracted by a falling boom mic while recording a speech at a TV station.
- Corrupt Politician: What Bill starts out determined to avoid becoming.
- The Corrupter: Marvin, who, in order to win, gradually convinces Bill to abandon everything he believes in.
- Door-Closes Ending: After the famous line "what do we do now?", Bill's campaign workers burst into the suite and more or less drag Bill and Marvin out of the room. The door closes behind them, leaving the hotel room empty and silent. The End.
- Election Day Episode: Ends with Election Day and Bill's upset victory.
- Hitler Cam: Done with Crocker Jarmon when he's standing in front of a giant photo of himself in what has to be a deliberate Shout-Out to Citizen Kane.
- Hypocritical Humor: Bill, in his debate with Jarmon: "I don't think you can trim what you say to suit someone's poll." This, just seconds after Bill, who supports abortion rights, gave a mealy-mouthed non-answer on that question, because Marvin told him it polls better.
- Important Haircut: Bill's shaggy '70s Hair and his muttonchop sideburns are cut after he agrees to run for Senate. It's the first step along his path of selling out to The Man.
- Lens Flare: Seen from Bill's perspective when he is on stage in a darkened auditorium giving a speech, with a spotlight pointing at him.
- Newscaster Cameo: Several. Most notably, ABC political commentator Howard K. Smith denounces Bill's turn to substance-free sloganeering.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: McKay is likely a Composite Character who bears a strong resemblance to various real politicians whom Michael Ritchie, Jeremy Larner and Robert Redford knew or worked for.
- Can it really be a coincidence that this film, about a rising young California Democratic Party star who is the son of a former Democratic governor, was made in 1972? When Jerry Brown, son of former Democratic governor Pat Brown, was a rising young California Democratic Party star? (Jerry Brown was elected as governor in 1974 and 1978... and 2010 and 2014.)
- According to Michael Ritchie, McKay was actually based on John V. Tunney, the Democratic Senator from California whose 1970 campaign Ritchie had worked on. Screenwriter Jeremy Larner also drew from his experiences working for Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign and incorporates incidents from the campaign, and elements of McCarthy's own personality into McKay.
- Several observers (including Larner) feel that Redford based his performance on John Lindsay, Mayor of New York City, who ran for President as a Democrat in 1972. Lindsay and Redford were close friends and Lindsay, in fact, had announced his party switch from Republican to Democrat while visiting Redford at Sundance in 1971. Redford, however, has always denied drawing inspiration from Lindsay.
- No Party Given: Averted. Bill is explicitly a Democrat and Jarmon is explicitly a Republican. Supposedly James Stewart was offered the role of Jarmon but declined it because Stewart, himself a Republican, thought it denigrated conservative politicians.
- Panty Shot: A young woman lifts her skirt at Bill, revealing she's wearing one of his campaign buttons on the front of her panties.
- Politicians Kiss Babies: Crocker Jarmon holds up a toddler at a rally, but doesn't kiss him.
- Running Gag: Marvin and Bill breaking away from a crowd to have a private talk in a cramped, inconvenient place (a bathroom, a cockpit, an elevator).
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Pretty damn cynical. The central message is that even the most idealistic crusader has to throw his principles away if he wants to win political office.
- Smug Snake: Crocker Jarmon is a classic pompous, glad-handing type politician who clearly doesn't take McKay seriously as a challenger, only to get desperate when the polls start tightening up.
- So What Do We Do Now?: The most famous moment in the film comes at the end. Having sacrificed all his principles and become another cynical politician, Bill wins, to everyone's shock. As his crowd of people is barreling towards the ballroom and his victory speech, Bill yanks Marvin aside. They find a quiet, empty room, where Bill asks Marvin the question that is the last line of the movie, which is also the page quote.
- Springtime for Hitler: Marvin recruits Bill for the campaign figuring Bill will just lose anyway so he can use the spotlight to gain attention for his causes. McKay agrees — and they both get so caught up in the election game that they end up winning. The film ends with a horrified McKay turning to Lucas on election night, just as the cheering crowds surround them, and asking, "...what do we do NOW?"
- Stepford Smiler: Bill's wife, Nancy, becomes this more and more as the campaign progresses.
- Trade Your Passion for Glory: One of the main themes. Bill is a passionate advocate for liberal causes. But once he realizes he might actually win the election, he sells out his principles, and at the end, has no idea what to do.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Bill chafes under the shadow of his father, former governor John McKay, who pretty clearly doesn't respect his left-wing activist son. Not only does Dad not help Bill with his campaign, Bill has to go to his father's house to get him to issue a denial that he actually supports Crocker Jarmon. Significantly, John McKay dives into the campaign on his son's behalf after it looks like Bill actually has a chance to win.
- Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: As a stunned Bill sits among his euphoric campaign staff on Election Night, his dad sits down next to him. John McKay flashes a wolfish grin and says "You're a poltician now." Bill's look of horror speaks volumes.