After the debates, a turn to the ground?

Now that the final debate before the Iowa caucus is over and till voting begins January 3, the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination will have to rely on advertising, direct mail, and field operations more than the media coverage each debate has generated. Two more debates are crammed in in the few days between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, and more are to come, but for a few weeks, there will be more action on the ground than in the television studios.

With Newt Gingrich’s having surged in recent weeks as the latest in a succession of “not-Mitt-Romney”-candidates, Romney, for a long time the front-runner and likely nominee, has a few decisive weeks ahead of him. Real Clear Politics’ poll averages suggest Gingrich could win both Iowa (January 3) and South Carolina (January 21) while Romney remain ahead in New Hampshire (January 10).

With the race still very fluid and Gingrich’s support in the polls showing some signs of weakness, things are still very much up in the air, but as he faces all the challenges ahead, Romney seems to have one clear operational advantage that is rarely mentioned in the news–his organization on the ground. The Financial Times is one of the few news organizations that have paid much attention to this side of the contest, and as their reporters note, “Mr Gingrich has little grassroots organisation to replace the platform the debates have given him.”

Especially in low-turnout, high-stakes contests like the early caucuses and primaries, literally every vote counts, and Romney, in contrast to the recently revived Gingrich, has for months been building an organization on the ground in several states to gather information about supporters and swing voters and to court voters in a personal fashion.

Here is how one Romney adviser is spinning the difference in New Hampshire (from the FT):

Staffers at Mr Romney’s office brush off Mr Gingrich’s recent gains in the polls, saying he has neither the ground operation to compete nor the volunteers who are the lifeblood of a state primary campaign. “In three days, we can turn out people for a big rally. Newt can’t do that stuff,” said one of Mr Romney’s advisers. “It’s not rocket science; it’s about old-fashioned shoe leather. We have identified 20,000 or 30,000 people who like Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich has no idea who likes Newt Gingrich.”

In a time of social media and 24/7 rolling news, canvassing and phone banking can seem hopelessly old-fashioned, frustratingly slow, and to small-scale to make much of a difference, but campaigns are increasingly orchestrating personalized contacts on a very large scale and research gives us good reason to think that a knock on the door or a call from an enthusiastic and/or well-trained person represent some of the most effective ways of swaying people politically.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the Republican primaries remain very much in flux. Especially in a potentially drawn-out and close contest, hard work by people on the ground may produce a surprise or two along the way as the nomination is decided over the next months–as it did in the Obama/Clinton contest in 2008.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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