Four weeks till Election Day

Four weeks from today, the Presidential Election is finally over and (hopefully) decided.

After a long period with a significant advantage to the incumbent, Obama and Romney are now effectively tied in Real Clear Politics’ national average of polls, and the President’s lead in many swing states seems diminished.

Forecasters like Nate Silver still consider Obama to be the favorite, but it is clear that this election is far from over and the last four weeks will matter a lot.

The day-to-day media coverage is very noisy (and so are the polls from the last weeks). First, the “47 percent”-remark was seen as some as the final nail in the Romney candidacy. Then the President’s performance in the first televised debate supposedly relaunched the Republican nominee’s campaign. Things are volatile, and it is hard to nail down what exactly drives which swings in what parts of the electorate.

One thing we do know–both amongst political operatives and amongst social scientists–is that a strong field operation can be decisive in a close race. That’s why both campaigns and their various allies are investing tens of millions in local offices, field staffers, technologies for organizing and targeting canvassing and phone banks more effectively, and in volunteer mobilization (and in paying people something like ten bucks an hour to make calls or knock on doors when there aren’t enough volunteers to meet the target goals).

Field operations–“ground wars”–are not the only thing that matters in the final weeks, but they are among the things that matter in the final weeks. And in particular because they also provide ordinary Americans who wish to a chance to play an active role in electoral politics and advance the cause or candidate they favor, I wish this side of the campaign would receive as much media scrutiny as the thousands and thousands of words spilled over the debates, the TV advertisements, the fundraising, and the rest of it. What sociologists like William Gamson call “collective action frames”, that  is, action-oriented ways of talking about politics that inspire and legitimize active involvement, can in themselves help increase political participation.

Field operations, canvassing, and phone banking, these seemingly prosaic aspects of political campaigns are worth paying attention to in part because they matter, but also because they allow people to matter. You probably can’t write the killer line for the next TV debate, create the knock-out ad that everyone will remember, or donate a million dollars to the candidate of your choice. But you can spend a few hours (or countless hours) volunteering, and actually make a difference.

It’s worth repeating–if you want to make a difference in November, go knock on doors.

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 has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

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