Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) strolls up to a podium in an auditorium and begins to speak on his religious preferences. He then begins to whistle and whisper into the microphone. An audio technician comes up, and they adjust the volume. Stephen isn't a candidate but one of the main staffers for a candidate. He tells the guys on the stage to fix the audio and add padding to Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) side, so his height will match his opponent.
It's election time, and Governor Mike Morris, a popular, idealistic candidate is going up against Senator Pullman in a Democratic primary. They have been campaigning hard, with Morris having a slight lead over Pullman. But Ohio is a crucial state. It is clear whoever wins Ohio, will win the nomination and will go on to run for President.
Morris and Pullman have their debate in which Pullman questions Morris' views on religion. Morris deflects them easily saying he was a former catholic and does not know what happens after death. All he knows is he is not an atheist, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religion association. His religion is the constitution, and he will fight to protect it. The debate over, the two shake hands.
Stephen and Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the senior campaign manager to Morris bump into Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Duffy is the head campaign manager for Pullman. Duffy and Stephen banter about how well Morris did in the debate. ''Be careful.'' Duffy says to Paul, ''I might want to steal him from you.'' Duffy leaves and Paul calls him an asshole.
Paul and Stephen have dinner with Ida (Marisa Tomei) a reporter they are both friendly with. Ida asks for a quote about Ohio and Paul says he will only say he is confident they will win. Nothing is guaranteed, and he will not go on record saying they will win if it blows up in their face. Paul asks Stephen about the race. ''It's ours for the taking.'' Stephen says. Paul excuses himself, so Ida turns her attentions to Stephen. Stephen notes he has been on more campaigns than most people have when they're 40, and he has never seen a guy like Morris. Ida scoffs at his optimism. ''It won't matter.'' Ida says. If Morris wins, Stephen gets a job at the White House. If he loses, Stephen will get a high paying consulting job somewhere on K Street. Ida doesn't buy into his idealism, thinking all politicians are the same.
At Morris HQ the next day, Stephen crosses paths with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern he had worked with before. Molly mentions the dive bar most of the interns go to and invites Stephen to have a drink with her the next night. Stephen agrees.
Paul has a meeting with Senator Thompson (Jeffery Wright) at his home. They need his endorsement so that his delegates will vote his way. Paul tells him that much. Thompson doesn't respond. It's clear he wants something.
Stephen and Morris have a meeting with the staffers. Stephen tells Morris he should go all the way on one of his policies; mandatory service via army, peace corp etc. in return for college tuition being paid. Stephen says it is win win; most will like it, and the ones who won't are too young to vote. Stephen gets a call from his father and excuses himself. But it is not his dad. It is Duffy asking if he has five minutes. Stephen says they cannot talk but Duffy presses for a meeting, saying they will meet in a small bar where no one will see them. Stephen calls Paul and leaves a message and tells him that it's important.
At the bar, Duffy cuts to the chase; he thinks Stephen is working for the wrong man. Duffy wants to recruit Stephen to Pullman's camp. They already promised Senator Thompson a cabinet position, so the race is basically over. He can be with the winners, or he can stay and lose. Stephen refuses outright, saying he doesn't have to play dirty politics anymore. ''I got Morris!'' Stephen says. Stephen goes to leave, and Duffy asks him.''Do you want to work for your friend or the President?'' Duffy states cold, hard facts; Republicans are better at the game. They are more ruthless and cunning, and Democrats refuse to ''get in the mud with the fucking elephants.''
Stephen is called by Paul asking what was wrong. Stephen lies and says it was nothing.
Molly and Stephen go for a drink that night. Molly reveals her father is Jack Stearne (Gregory Itzin), the DNC chairman and that he is an asshole. Molly asks how old Stephen is, and she correctly guesses 30. Molly reveals that she is 20. Molly asks if it's too much of an age gap for a 20 year old to want to fuck a 30 year old. Stephen asks when she has to work tomorrow. Molly says nine. Molly happens to have the keys to the campaign bus, so they use it and drive back to Stephen's hotel, parking on the curb.
The morning after. Stephen and Molly had slept together the night before and are getting dressed for work. Molly's dad comes on the television, and Stephen watches and realizes the irony of watching the dad of the girl he just had sex with. Stephen asks she stay quiet about their dalliance and Molly promises to. Molly confesses she wanted to sleep with him for awhile and thinks she's a bit ''slutty'' for being so aggressive. Stephen says she wasn't and he respects her for being so forward. They kiss, and go their separate ways.
Stephen, Morris, and several staffers including Ben Harpen (Max Minghella) are on a plane going to another speech. The plane shakes a little bit, and Stephen gets queasy. Morris asks if he is all right. ''We're going to be fine. We have to do it, it's the right thing to do, and nothing bad happens when you're doing the right thing.'' Stephen says. ''Is that your personal theory?'' Morris asks. ''Because I can shoot holes in it.''
''Well there is exceptions to every rule.'' Stephen says.
Morris asks if they are doing OK in the polls. Stephen says they are doing great. Morris tells him not to talk like Paul; Paul is paid to kiss his ass. Stephen is here to tell it to him straight. Stephen reiterates that it will be close, but they will be fine. Stephen makes his whole philosophy clear by saying, ''I'll do or say anything if I believe in it. But I have to believe in the cause.''
Morris does another speech to a younger crowd, who are also key voters. In the back, Stephen confesses to Paul that he met with Tom Duffy. He offered him a job and explained that Sen. Thompson is being promised a cabinet position. Paul is enraged that Stephen lied to him. Stephen says he thought it didn't matter. ''It doesn't matter what you thought! It matters what you did. It matters what you DIDN''T do!'' Paul screams. Paul tells Stephen to find an empty room. They are going to talk to Morris after the speech.
Morris finds out about Senator Thompson wanting to be Secretary of State in exchange for his endorsement. Morris refuses to budge saying they need win Ohio another way.
Morris' team hits the pavement trying to rally support and do damage control in light of recent developments.
Morris and his wife Cindy talk in the car. Cindy tells him to give Thompson what he wants so they can win.
Stephen and the staffers are on the bus when he gets a IM from Molly asking if he wants to meet up again. They have sex again, but Stephen gets distracted by Morris on TV. They both laugh over the mood being broken.
Later, Molly is sleeping when her phone goes off. Stephen answers it, but they hang up. Stephen wakes her up and asks who would call her this late. Stephen says he'll call back but Molly pleads for him not to. We find out why. It is Morris' cell phone. Stunned, Stephen asks why she is calling the governor. Molly cracks and tells him Morris and she had an affair one time. Stephen asks why she is calling him again. ''Because I need 900 dollars.'' Molly says (she's pregnant). Molly says she can't go to her father because they are Catholic. Stephen is blown away; his squeaky clean candidate is more dirty than he thought.
The next day, Stephen tells Ben to take out the maximum petty cash they can withdraw (500). He meets with Molly, telling her to meet him later.
Stephen meets with Ida who drops a bombshell; she knows about his meeting with Tom Duffy. Stephen tries to deny it, but Ida reveals unless he gives her information on Thompson, she leak his story. Stephen says he thought they were friends. Ida scoffs, saying they are only friends because he gives scoops and she writes them in a favorable light.
Stephen calls Duffy who denies leaking the story. Stephen sees some men taking pictures and gets paranoid. He hangs up.
Stephen meets Molly with $1,800. She needs to get an abortion and then go home. She can no longer work on the campaign. Stephen said she made a big mistake and has to pay for it. He will take her to the clinic and take her to the hotel afterwards. Stephen takes Molly to the clinic, promising to pick her up afterward.
Stephen meets with Paul, talking about how they need to spin the Duffy/Stephen meeting. Ben is in the room, as well. Paul reveals he leaked the story. It will give them justification to fire him from the campaign. Stephen is shocked, but Paul goes on a monologue about loyalty. When Paul first started, he was working with a no name politician. The opposing side tried to poach him, but Paul was honest and told his candidate. His boss said he will not stop him from leaving, but Paul stayed loyal to him. They lost, but three years later, the guy ran for governor, using Paul as his manager and they won. ''There is only one thing in this world I value which is loyalty. Without it, you're nothing.'' Paul says.
Paul tells Stephen he is fired, and Morris agrees with it. It is not because he isn't good, or he doesn't like him. It's because they can't trust him.
Molly is never picked up by Stephen. She eventually has to take a cab back to the hotel. Ben is in her room saying he just got promoted to Stephen's job and Stephen was fired threatening to bring everyone down. Molly is scared, thinking she is about to be used as a pawn in Stephen's game.
Stephen meets with Tom Duffy saying he wants in. Duffy says he knows he just got fired, and it will look bad if they take him on. ''What if I have something? Something big.'' Stephen asks. Duffy still won't agree. Realization washes over Stephen. ''You never intended on hiring me.'' he says. Duffy talks around the issue but eventually admits it more or less. If he played off Paul's ethics of loyalty so he would fire Stephen, they could poach him. If they didn't want him, Paul and Morris still wouldn't have him. Duffy would still cause a large blow to Morris' campaign. Stephen is enraged, but Duffy tells him to leave politics because soon he will become jaded and cynical like the rest of them, and it will crush his idealistic soul.
Stephen goes back to the hotel and sees a man rush out of Molly's room. He goes inside and sees her body on the floor. She killed herself. Stephen eyes her phone and steals it. He listens to her voicemail, pleading for him not to do anything rash (like leak her affair with Morris). Tears brim in his eyes.
Steven meets with Thompson, who seems to not know he was fired. Thompson reveals that he wants the cabinet position, and if he does not have confirmation from Morris by the next day, he will endorse Pullman. Stephen listens, stoically.
Morris holds a press conference about Molly's death, claiming not to know her too well. He gets a call from Molly's cell. Morris sees Stephen. The message is clear. Stephen wants to meet.
Stephen meets Morris in an empty restaurant. Stephen tells Morris to listen. He is going to fire Paul. Stephen will take over as the head manager. Morris WILL endorse Thompson and get his delegates support. They will win the primary and thus the nomination. Morris asks what he thinks he has. Stephen tells him that you can do a lot in this country; you can start wars, ruin the budget, take bribes. ''But you can't fuck the interns.'' Stephen grimly states. Morris is defiant, telling him that everything is circumstantial. Stephen tells him that she was pregnant, and he took her to the clinic.
Morris goes on the defensive. The girl is dead. Since she had an abortion, there is no DNA evidence. It will just be Stephen's word versus his. And he is just a disgruntled ex-staff member. Stephen says there was a note he took. Morris freezes momentarily. However, he quickly deduces there is no note and tells Stephen so. ''It's your call.'' Stephen says.
Paul is getting a haircut and walks out a barbershop the next day. Morris is nearby in his SUV asking to talk for a minute. We don't see or hear the conversation, but Paul gets out stunned. He has been fired. Paul later gets on TV, claiming new positive numbers made him, and Morris mutually decide to hand it over to someone different (Stephen).
Stephen attends Molly's funeral while her father cries at the pulpit saying his daughter was a good person that enriched everyone she knew. Stephen talks to Paul, who reveals he knew Molly since she was born. Morris doesn't attend the funeral, claiming to be working with Thompson, but Stephen knows the real reason why. Paul notes he got a consulting job on K Street for a million a year, a cushy job ''where people won't fuck you over.'' Paul says that he and Stephen should have a beer one day, and Stephen can tell him what he had on Morris to make him fire Paul.
Thompson endorses Morris and asks for his delegates support in voting for Morris. Stephen watches from the crowd, apathetically watching as Thompson and Morris speak in platitudes when he knows their real character and motivations.
Ben is working in an office when a new intern, a brunette dead ringer for Molly introduces herself as Jill Morris (no relation).Stephen is walking to an interview when he is stopped by Ida, asking if he wants to comment on a story she is doing. Ida claims that Stephen handed the Thompson endorsement to Morris and that he got Paul fired. Stephen dodges her questions. Ida pleads with him, saying, they are friends, right? Stephen looks at her and says, ''You're my best friend.''
Stephen sits in a chair to do a TV interview. As they put an earpiece in and check the audio, Stephen sits in the chair in silence and meditates on the past couple weeks. Duffy's grim prediction has rung true; he is no longer hopeful about the future of politics. He is just another cog in the machine. Nothing ever changes. The only thing that has, is him. His idealism has been irrevocably shattered. He was willing to use Molly, a scared, young girl to get back at Morris and Paul. His actions indirectly caused her suicide.
Stephen listens as Morris gives his speech mentioning that integrity and dignity matters. Stephen now knows Morris has neither. Morris for all his talk is just like the rest of the politicians. He made serious mistakes, and when pushed came to shove he failed the test of character. Rather than own up to them, he swept his scandal under the rug and fired his loyal friend in order to cover up his transgressions.
The news broadcaster comes into the earpiece, saying they are speaking to new head manager of the Morris campaign, Stephen Myers. The newscaster asks him how recent upheavals including Thompson's endorsement came to be. Stephen stares at the camera with a blank, chilling expression.