Category Archives: Political campaigns

Preconference on qualitative political communication research

At this year’s International Communication Association conference in Seattle, David Karpf, Daniel KreissMatthew Powers and myself are organizing a preconference on the role of qualitative methods in political communication research.

We believe that qualitative methods like ethnographic field work, interviews, and focus groups that have contributed to many other fields of media and communication research (as well as to other social sciences like sociology) but have played a fairly marginal role in political communication research in recent years have much to contribute to our understanding of political communication processes.

The idea behind the conference originates with a piece Dave, Daniel and I presented at ICA 2013 in London calling for “A New Era of Field Research in Political Communication” (the full conference paper here, a shorter, revised version is coming out in Leah Lievrouw’s edited book Challening Communication Research, which collects the best papers from the 2013 London conference).

For the preconference, the three of us behind the paper teamed up with Matthew Powers, who has done very interesting research on NGOs and their PR strategies (see this piece, for example). All of us have done empirical research based in part or in whole on qualitative methods and all see ourselves as at least in part political communication researchers. Together, we wrote and issued a call for papers for a qualitative political communication preconference at the 2014 ICA, with the support and sponsorship of both the journalism studies section and the political communication section.

We’ve had a great response to the call, and on May 22, we’ll have 32 paper presentations in two parallel tracks as well as roundtable discussions and much more (see the program here), presenting empirical findings, discussing methods, and developing theory for understanding political communication in a changing media and communication environment.

Things are picking up speed as we get closer to our May conference–

On the qualitative political communication blog, we have a series of interviews about methods with some of the presenters.

The political communication report, has just published a feature about the preconference.

We expect to soon to be able to announce a publication venue for a special section consisting of the best papers from the conference.

Stay tuned…

UPDATE: The International Journal of Communication (IJoC) will publish a special section based on the conference. Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled. As the premier open-access communication journal and one with a strong commitment to interdisciplinary work and methodological diversity, it is the ideal forum for this.

Most people still ignore most politicians online…

The great open access journal International Journal of Communication just published a paper I’ve written with Cristian Vaccari called “Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not Really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon”.

In the paper, we analyze the presence of 224 major-party candidates for the House of Representatives across the 112 most competitive districts in the 2010 U.S. Congressional Elections across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their campaign websites and find that attention is highly concentrated with just a few candidates attracting vastly more supporters, followers, video views, and website visitors than everyone else.

Though a few politicians stand out, the median candidates count their followers etc in the hundreds or at best the low thousands. It is a hit economy out there, and most politicians are not a hit with the wider population, at least in the U.S. (I’ve blogged about this data before, and TechPresident wrote a bit about it back in 2010—the article had a tortured review process, so it has taken a bit of time to get this simple but I think pretty important argument out there in its final form.)

Are our findings still relevant three years after the data was gathered, three years in which the spread of smartphones and tablets and the growing popularity of new social media have changed the web?

I very much thing so—the four basic patterns we identify seems stable. They are:

(1) limited reach in terms of the number of people who follow most campaigns on various platforms; (2) high levels of concentration of attention across all platforms, with a few politicians drawing many people, and most drawing few; (3) considerable correlations between visibility on each platform, where candidates who do well on one also tend to do well on the others; and (4) noticeable growth in the total number of people following candidates in the course of the campaign period without any change in the overall pattern of highly skewed distributions.

Data from our follow-up work on 2012 confirm all four basic patterns (here for a first cut of that data), and several of them are familiar from earlier work by Matt Hindman and others on “web 1.0” online politics.

As we write in the paper,

The few candidates with significant online audiences are not as much ahead of the curve as they are on top of the curve. If the limited number of politicians in our sample who attracted a lot of attention were distinguished by being early adopters of particular platforms, perhaps others could do likewise and achieve similar results. But with adoption rates of the four platforms considered here ranging between 91% and 100% among candidates [in 2010], and large parts of the adult population already using them regularly [again, in 2010], the highly uneven distributions are clearly not the outcome of uneven levels of use.

Ultimately, the online environment, partially discounting online marketing, is a pull environment in which people opt in and self-select. And at least in the U.S., interest in politics is limited and unevenly distributed, trust and confidence in politicians is limited, and while many people talk about politics online, most people do not connect with most politicians online.

It is an open question how relevant these findings are in countries where more people are more interested in politics (many countries have far higher turnout than the U.S.) and have more faith in politicians and the political process (as in some Northern European countries, for example). (On the other hand, they may be even more true in countries with lower levels of engagement and trust, or in supra-national political systems like the E.U., where very few European-level politicians have build significant popular followings online.)

But at least in the U.S., what we wrote in conclusion about our 2010 data still seems accurate to me–

As long as competition for attention is so fierce and levels of interest so low and uneven, only a few politicians will attract large online audiences that allow them to communicate directly to the electorate to any significant degree via various social networking sites. The rest will have to find other ways, including both traditional means, such as direct mail, field operations, and television advertising, as well as new forms of push marketing online. The topology we have mapped here is one dominated by a few exceptional outliers who attract tens of thousands of supporters and viewers, but where the great majority of candidates—even in well-funded, competitive, high-stakes contests—labor in relative obscurity online.

An ever-more unequal playing field? Campaign communications across digital, “earned”, and paid media

Cristian Vaccari and I will be presenting a first slice of our 2012 data on campaign communications in competitive U.S. congressional districts across digital media, “earned media” (news coverage) and paid media (campaign expenditures on advertising, canvassing, direct mail, online marketing, etc) at the American Political Science Association 2013 annual meeting in Chicago.

We show that most of these forms of campaign communication are highly unevenly distributed. A minority of candidates draw far more supporters, more news coverage, and raise more money than the rest, even when one is looking only at major party candidates (Democrats and Republicans) running in similarly competitive districts.

Contrary to the view that the internet may help “level the playing field”, we find that popularity on digital media like Facebook is in fact far more concentrated than both visibility in mainstream news media and money raised and spent during the campaign. (This is in line with Matt Hindman’s earlier work on the winner-take-all tendencies of much political communication online.)

Three key empirical take-aways from the paper—

  1. Most candidates draw limited news coverage and few supporters on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and hence remain highly dependent on paid media to reach voters, despite the fact that almost all of them use almost all the digital media at their disposal (websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc).
  2. In both 2010 and 2012, paid media is unevenly distributed, earned media/news coverage is more unevenly distributed, and digital media/social media followings the most unevenly distributed. (Social media in 2010 discussed in greater detail here.)
  3. The general (uneven) pattern is the same in 2010 and 2012. If anything the inequality increases, especially in the case of digital media. Hence the notion of an ever-more unequal playing field as digital media—the most unevenly distributed form of campaign communication we examine—becomes relatively more important.

Abstract below, full paper here. We’d be interested in comments as this is work-in-progress and we are very interested in how to best compare the apples and oranges of digital media, earned media, and paid media in a meaningful way.

 An Ever-More Unequal Playing Field? Comparing Congressional Candidates Across Digital Media, Earned Media, and Paid Media

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Roskilde and Oxford)

and

Cristian Vaccari (Royal Holloway and Bologna)

 Abstract

 In this study, we analyze patterns of digital media, earned media, and paid media performance among major-party candidates in competitive U.S. Congressional districts in the 2010 (N=112) and 2012 (N=120) election cycles. Based on standard concentration indices, we analyze the distribution of (1) interest from internet users (“digital media”), (2) visibility in news coverage (“earned media”), and (3) campaign expenditures (as an indicator of “paid media” like direct mail, television advertising, and online marketing) across a strategic sample of 464 candidates engaged in competitive races for the House of Representatives. We show that most of these forms of campaign communication are highly concentrated. A minority of candidates draw far more supporters, more news coverage, and raise more money than the rest. Contrary to the view that the internet may help “level the playing field”, we find that popularity on digital media like Facebook is in fact far more concentrated than both visibility in mainstream news media and money raised and spent during the campaign. By 2012, the most popular candidate in a district drew on average almost nine times as many social media supporters as her direct rival, compared to three and a half times as many local news stories and about four times as many dollars spent. The differences in terms of digital media and paid media had both increased since 2010, while the differences in terms of earned media had decreased. Thus, while success on the internet might occasionally benefit challengers and outsiders in US major-party politics, the overall competitive environment on the web is far from a level playing field and may in some ways exacerbate inequalities between resource-rich and resource-poor candidates. As digital media become more important parts of the overall communication environment, we may thus be moving towards a more uneven playing field.

Direct communication via social media? Not for most politicians, no

Last week, Frank Bruni from the New York Times wrote a column trotting out an old idea—that new technologies like social media allow “direct communication” between politicians and the people, circumventing intermediaries like the news media. This is an old idea because it has accompanied many other media technologies before social media, including radio and television.

Bruni asks “Who Needs Reporters?” and highlights how Michele Bachmann used a YouTube video to announce she wouldn’t seek re-election, that Anthony Weiner had taken the same route to announce that he was seeking election, and that Hillary Clinton had announced her support for gay marriage in a web video. In all cases, the politician in question clearly avoided potentially problematic questions from journalists by using YouTube to make newsworthy announcements. He writes:

“[reporters] role and relevance are arguably even more imperiled by politicians’ ability, in this newly wired world of ours, to go around us and present themselves in packages that we can’t simultaneously unwrap. To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.”

He is arguably right to worry about the diminished importance of professional journalism overall (though the end of journalists as the main gatekeepers between news and the wider population is far from only a bad thing).
But is he right to argue that politicians as a class can circumvent the news media (and paid media, i.e., television advertising) and speak directly to the people via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? (Even if they could, it wouldn’t really be “direct”, just through new digital intermediaries with their own biases etc.)

Together with my colleague, Cristian Vaccari, I’ve been investigating this question in a more systematic way, looking not only at extreme outliers like Bachmann, Weiner, and Clinton, who all command outsize attention both amongst journalists and on various social media platforms, but also more ordinary politicians.

In a piece of research I’ve already blogged about, we show how the vast majority of congressional candidates, even in competitive, high-stakes, well-funded races, actually reach only a miniscule audience via their various social media profiles. They don’t, in Bruni’s words, have to rely on a newspaper’s attention, for the role of newspapers in the American media landscape is eroding and many other channels are available. But they certainly cannot rely on social media to reach people either, for most people do not follow most politicians online.

Here is the paper we’ve written on the huge variations in how much attention different candidates draw (abstract below), and here is the paper we have written trying to explain the variation.

Do People ‘Like’ Candidates on Facebook? Not Really — From Direct to Indirect and Institutional Effects of Social Media in Politics.

The online popularity of a few exceptional candidates has led many to suggest that social media have given politicians powerful ways of communicating directly with voters. In this paper, we examine whether this is happening on a significant scale and show, based on analysis of 224 candidates involved in competitive races in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, that the majority of politicians online are in fact largely ignored by the electorate. Citizens’ attention to candidates online approximates power law distributions, with a few drawing many followers while most languish in obscurity. We therefore suggest that the political implications of social media are generally better understood in terms of facilitating indirect communication and institutional change than in terms of direct communication.

Direct communication with the electorate is not what most politicians use social media for (more for influencing the news cycle, connecting with supporters to raise money and mobilize volunteers). Most politicians cannot rely on social media alone to reach voters because people do not seek them out on these “pull” platforms driven by interest. Therefore, campaigns still have to rely on “push” media including ”earned media” (news coverage), television advertising, direct mail, online advertising, and field campaigns with volunteers and paid workers going door to door or hitting the phones.

Data-Crunched Democracy

I spent the day at Data-Crunched Democracy, an excellent conference organized by Daniel Kreiss and Joe Turow focused on the increasingly important role of “big data”, quantitative data analysis, and formal modeling in US political campaigns.

It was a very rewarding day with many interesting discussions and presentations by campaign staffers, consultants, lawyers, and others who had been involved in the 2012 campaign cycle.

It’s often hard to follow what’s actually going on this space without speaking to those involved because, as Lois Beckett from ProPublica, who is among the few journalists who have covered this area, “many campaign people lie to journalists about micro targeting and data use”. So, with that warning and caveat, a few take-aways from a rich day—

Where are well-resourced US campaigns at in terms of using data? As Rayid Ghani (Chief Scientist, Obama for America) reminded us, data-based modeling is probabilistic and mostly aimed at about marginal improvements in how resources are allocated for messaging, mobilization, fundraising, etc. It’s not a magic bullet, not necessarily as powerful or nebulous as some would suggest, and generally not as developed as the use of behavioral modeling is in much of the corporate world.

Ghani explained that big data-based modeling is hard to do in politics because of the low frequency of the behavior you are trying to model (voting, for example, is not someone we do that often) and because the context is important and can change dramatically from election to election (2004 versus 2008 etc). Targeting is–and several speakers, including Carol Davidsen from Obama for America as well as Alex Lundry and Brent McGoldrick who were both involved in the Romney campaign in various roles, underlined this–certainly getting better and better in terms of predicting people’s political behavior, but it remains probabilistic, and this is too often overlooked and/or misunderstood in public discussions surrounding the use of data by campaigns.

Modeling is also hard because though much data is available in the US after more than a decade of database-building, by the standards of computer scientists, it not much. As Ghani put it—and he worked for Obama—“this is the smallest dataset I’ve worked with.” In insurance, banking, health, and many areas of marketing, the datasets are much bigger and more detailed. (And one can easily imagine why—the resources available in those sectors are bigger than even the biggest political campaigns, let alone more ordinary campaigns for Congress etc.)

Right now, campaigns still focus on modeling people’s (a) propensity to vote and (b) their likelihood of supporting one or another candidate. Ghani suggested that in the future, there will be more focus on modeling “persuadability”, in predicting not only how are people likely to behave, but also how likely they are to be susceptible to specific kinds of communication from campaigns.

It will also, and this is something in particular Carol Davidsen (Director, Integration and Media Targeting, Obama for America) talked about, increasingly work across platforms and in the future increasingly focus on evaluating the impact of the massive amounts of money spend on television advertising, an area that several campaign staffers and consultants underlined remains the biggest line item in campaign budgets, and also the least accountable and the least data-based activity. Data from set-top boxes, the rise of IPTV, etc may change that in the future. Integration is the watchword here.

Before getting carried away in discussions of how new digital sources of data from television, from social media, from cookies across the web etc, it is important to remember, as Eithan Hersh made clear in his very good talk, that “campaign targeting is largely a function of public data availability” (and of course what Alex Lundry called the “solid gold” of volunteer or paid canvassing/phonebank-generated IDs, the “who do you lean towards voting for”-type questions asked at the door and over the phone by field campaigns).

In terms of public data availability there are interesting cross-national differences between the US and for example the European Union, which has adopted a “comprehensive” approach to data protection and has privileged privacy protection and where much of the information that enable “big data”-based microtargeting in American politics is simply not available. (Eithan was foreshadowing his forthcoming book Hacking the Electorate, which I’m very much looking forward to.)

The reliance on public records makes the use of data by political campaigns very susceptible to regulation and challenge the stance of some speakers—that the rise of these tools is “a force of nature” that we simply have to adapt to—and make clear that there are political choices to be made here.

In summary, the conference (tons of tweets under the hashtag #datapolitics with other people’s thoughts and observations) provided much information about what campaigns are actually doing today and what the main contemporary legal and political issues surrounding these practices are, but also underlined that

(1) fully articulated, cutting edge big-data modeling remains far more widespread and developed in the corporate world and parts of government than in the political world and

(2) is obviously linked to the resources (time, money, expertise) available to individual campaigns, so the 2012 Obama campaign was ahead of the 2012 Romney campaign, all other US campaigns are far less sophisticated than either, and most campaigns in most other countries (where there is less money in electoral politics and often less public data available) are even less sophisticated.

Is democracy then being “data-crunched”? There was no consensus in the room. Big data and increasingly sophisticated analysis help campaigns allocate their resources more effectively, have enabled them to expand and refine their persuasion but also–importantly– their mobilization efforts, arguably increasing both volunteer participation and voter turnout. It has also increased the risk of electoral red-lining, more fragmented public debates and segmented campaign communications, and strengthened the hand of resource-rich incumbents relative to those with fewer resources (including insurgent campaigns as well as individual citizens).

UPDATE–nice piece on the NYT bits blog summarizing a talk by Kate Crawford outlining “six myths of Big Data”.

Ground Wars, one year on

My book Ground Wars, on how American political campaigns reach out to voters at the door and over the phone, one person at a time, on a very large scale, was published a year ago.

The 2012 elections have clearly shown that the resurgence of “personalized political communication” I analyze in the book has continued. Even after the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision unleashed a wave of outside spending going primarily into television advertising, the two major parties and most candidate campaigns engaged in competitive elections still invest heavily in the ground game.

We don’t have the National Election Studies numbers yet, but pre-election day surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press suggests that even before the intense final days, about as many people had been contacted in person as in 2008. The final number is likely to be higher, as the Obama campaign pursued an equally aggressive ground game and the Romney campaign built a far bigger field operation than McCain had in 2008 (though they also learned the hard way it is not only about quantity, but also about quality).

As I argue in the book, the resurgence of seemingly old-fashioned forms of political communication like door-to-door canvassing and phone banking is driven by a particular combination of media factors and political factors.

  • In terms of media factors, American campaigns face an increasingly fragmented and oversaturated media environment that undermines the effectiveness of inherited forms of mass media communication based on PR and advertising.
  • In terms of political factors, they operate in an environment characterized by a particular combination of partisan polarization and low turnout that puts an emphasis on mobilization over persuasion.

These factors, combined with the development of technologies that afford ever more precise targeting of individual voters, fuel the resurgence of the ground war—as they have over the last decade.

Much more research is needed, however, to understand this phenomenon (and its political and democratic implications). I’d point to just four areas I think are particularly important to examine at this point—

  1. What are the major differences in how Democratic and Republican campaigns approach ground wars, and how do we explain these differences? Currently, Obama’s campaigns set the standard, but in the 2000s, Bush’s campaigns were superior to his rivals’. (Is a starting point what Dave Karpf has called “outparty innovation incentives”?)
  2. How do we understand, especially after the “Citizens United”-decision, the formal and informal collaborations between candidate campaigns, party organizations, political action committees, and other entities like data vendors and consultancy companies? (See here the growing body of work on parties as networks.)
  3. What are we to make of the often rapid, always hyped, but also sometimes error-prone and problematic, development of new technologies for managing field operations, for integrating different layers of political communication (from mail over TV to a knock on the door) and (especially) for targeting voter contacts? (Daniel Kreiss has written the book on how different players in and around the Democratic Party developed their tools, but more is needed.)
  4. How are ground wars (the term is a very American one, hence the more academic “personalized political communication”) developing in other countries, including for example Western European democracies where partisan polarization is less pronounced and turnout higher? (Some work exists on constituency campaigning in the UK, but there is little comparative work on the organization and impact of these forms of political communication.)

My book is only a first step towards understanding the resurgence of seemingly old-fashioned forms of political communication like canvassing and phone banking. All of these areas call for more work, and I hope more researchers will engage with these issues.

I look forward to continuing that effort in 2013, and just want to thank here those who have engaged in it and facilitated it in 2012—from my book launch at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford a year ago over another twenty-three talks in six countries in the course of the last twelve months and several moderated online debates about the book, I’m grateful to everyone who hosted me, to everyone who showed up to hear about the book and talk about, and of course to those who’ve read it, emailed me about it, and reviewed it.

Targeting and turnout in the 2012 US Presidential Election

One of the big questions in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election was what the turnout would be. Would the supposed “enthusiasm gap” lead to lower turnout amongst some of the key demographics behind Obama’s 2008 victory, like African-Americans and college students? Would the absence of the extraordinary volunteer mobilization seen around the Presidents’ first campaign leave his reelection effort without the capacity to expand the electorate through large-scale voter registration efforts and an extensive and intense effort to get out the vote?

This seems to have been the conviction all the way to the top of the Republican Party. Reports suggest that Romney, Ryan, and key people around them remained confident of victory to the very end, seeing that they were “hitting their numbers” in many districts—only to realize as Election Night unfolded that turnout would exceed their expectations in most swing states, raising the bar for victory and leaving them in the unenviable position of having achieved their tactical goals but lost the strategic battle nonetheless.

Preliminary reports on turnout suggest that the Obama re-election campaign succeeded again in shaping the very nature of the electorate through massive investments of time, effort, and money in both the technical infrastructure and the raw manpower necessary for an effective up-to-date ground game. Yet again, they have set the standard against which other presidential campaigns will be measured (the way Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney reelection bid did in 2004). The Republican Party no doubt had a better ground game this time than in 2008, but the RNC task force created to study the Democratic campaign has plenty of work to do if the GOP hopes to close the strategic gap.

But what does the increased emphasis on a combination of old-fashioned organizing and door-to-door campaigning and increasingly sophisticated database-assisted voter targeting mean beyond the strategic level of how campaigns are waged and won? What does it mean for popular participation in American democracy?

This debate, especially concerning whether various forms of micro-targeting will lead to electoral red lining and leave people outside the democratic process is not new. It has been going on for more than a decade as the political parties have been catching up with the move towards more detailed and individual-level behavioral targeting long used in corporate communications and commercial marketing.

There have been two basic positions—

First, the pessimistic one outlined by Marshall Ganz in the early 1990s, suggesting that ever more precise targeting of voters will narrow the electorate by leading campaigns to focus their efforts on fewer and fewer people leaving others outside the process.

Second, the more optimistic one outlined by Peter Wielhouwer in the early 2000s, suggesting that more sophisticated targeting would also allow campaigns to identify more voters it makes sense to talk to and try to motivate, and thus expand the electorate as more people are turned out to vote.

Based on the evidence we’ve seen so far from 2012, who’s right? Both, in a way—at least Nate Silver’s analysis shows that turnout was steady in the swing states (and increased in several) even as it was down by about nine percent in the rest of the country. In some states, intensive and data-driven field efforts have expanded the electorate, in much of the country, only the usual suspects came out to vote.

This shouldn’t surprise us, as it is in line with the incentives that electoral campaigns face—as I wrote in my book Ground Wars based on research on previous election cycles:

Does the increasingly precise and individualized targeting possible today, then, expand the electorate, as some have suggested, or does it in fact narrow it, as others have argued? On closer inspection it turns out it does both, depending on the strategic situation. On the one hand, the new dominant targeting scheme identifies numerous new high-value persuasion and get-out-the-vote targets that were entirely invisible under the demographic and geographic targeting schemes that preceded it. The swing voter with an unusual demographic profile can suddenly be identified. The infrequently voting partisan who happens to live among supporters of the other party can be ferreted out. In this sense, the dominant targeting scheme clearly expands the universe of targets and thus enables much more ambitious persuasion and GOTV programs. But on the other hand, campaign assemblages typically only bother to contact such targets if they face strong opposition. Thus, as Marshall Ganz has warned since the early 1990s, in the vast majority of districts where elections are not effectively contested, the new political targeting may in fact narrow the electorate by helping campaigns focus on an ever more clearly defined plurality of highly motivated and highly partisan supporters who turn out on a regular basis to return the incumbent to office. But in competitive districts the new targeting scheme makes it possible for campaign assemblages to leverage their considerable resources to actually expand the electorate in significant ways, both in terms of persuasion efforts and get-out-the-vote efforts—and when the stakes are high enough, even through voter registration efforts. These have long been left for well-meaning civic associations and nonpartisan groups, but were taken up again and pursued with considerable energy and finesse by the Bush campaign among conservative Christians in 2000 and 2004, and by the Obama campaign among African Americans, Latinos, and college students in 2008 on the basis of new forms of political targeting.

The preliminary numbers on turnout from Silver and others suggests this is exactly what happened in 2012. And in the future too, we should expect to see ever more intense efforts to reach more and more potentially persuadable or potentially “mobilizable” voters in high-stakes, well-resourced, competitive elections, even as the majority of Americans who live in states and districts that are not competitive will hear less and less from campaigns as they, quite reasonably, use all available information to concentrate their resources where they think they matter.

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 is published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

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.

A choice between two candidates—and a contest between two campaigns

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama not only have different blueprints for America. They also have different blueprints for their campaigns for President of the United States of America.

Look for example at the four key elements of message (PR), money (fundraising), media (advertising), and mobilization (field operations/get-out-the-vote).

The Obama re-election effort is, arguably to an even greater extent than David Plouffe has already acknowledged the 2008 campaign was, modeled on George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign—

  • In terms of message, the goal is to paint Romney (then John Kerry) early as a man of questionable character unfit for the presidency, present Obama (Bush) as a man of principle who you may not like but who is doing what he believes is right and who will stay the course, and thus define the election not as a referendum on the sitting President but as “the clearest choice of any time in a generation” between the two candidates.
  • In terms of money, the campaign is walking on two legs, simultaneously using the advantages of incumbency to pursue big-dollar donors while also mining the wide network of small-dollar donors already built during previous cycles. Between them, the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and Priorities USA, the main pro-Obama “super PAC) are on course to raise something in the region of $900 million dollars by Election Day.
  • In terms of media, the campaign and its closest associates has aggressively used its ability to spend early to try to define Romney before he could start using funds from his general election account to really present himself to the American people. This means the Obama campaign has had a high burn-rate and may be at a slight disadvantage when it comes to paid media in the final weeks, but also that many people have had a (negative) view of Romney from well before the Republican convention.
  • In terms of mobilization, the campaign is trying to keep the key elements of the field operation under their own control, leveraging the amazing staff, volunteer, and targeting infrastructure built in 2008 and further refined in the years since, and using the stark choice between Obama and Romney to try to fire up an activist base who may have mixed feelings about the President’s first term.

The Romney campaign, in contrast, has so far chartered a quite different course—

  • In terms of message, the overarching narrative so far has been a referendum on the President’s performance on the economy and job creation—the famous “are you better off than four years ago”-question—and not a choice between two candidates. (With the campaign off balance and the Republican nominee behind in the polls, many in the party are pushing for a more positive and specific arguments for why people should vote for Romney.)
  • In terms of money, the campaign has tapped into a network of wealthy big-dollar donors and done very, very well to keep up with—and sometimes surpass—Obama’s fundraising. Between them, the Romney campaign, the Republican National Committee, and Restore Our Future, the main pro-Romney “super PAC”, have more or less kept pace with the President and his closest allies, raising well over $600 million so far. But the money comes from fewer donors, many of whom have already given the maximum amount they can to the campaign itself, leaving them to explore alternative options such as outside political action committees if they want to give more. The main Republican operations have received much less from small-dollar donors. Importantly, the money has been raised across a number of different organizations who are legally prohibited from coordinating their efforts, complicating things in the final weeks.
  • In terms of media, the Romney campaign has spent less than the President and his allies. The Republican nominee has talked about spending money “wisely” and campaign insiders have insisted that they are not so much behind as keeping their powder dry for the home stretch where they may well have an advantage in terms of raw financial muscle. (This reflects different strategic analysis. The Romney campaign seems cognizant of the rather short half-life of the direct effect television advertising has on voters’ behavior and the Obama campaign focused on the declining rates of return of increased spending.)
  • In terms of mobilization, the Romney campaign is, by all accounts, clearly superior to the 2008 McCain operation, but is still nowhere near the scale and scope of the Obama field operation. (In part this reflects that Romney has had less time to plan as he had to navigate the primary, but also, as I noted in April, that the campaign has not prioritized using the primary as a way of building an operation for the general election, the way Obama did in 2008.) Instead, Romney will have to bank on the efforts of outside groups including not only the national party, but also Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Coalition. As the Democratic Party and its allies learned in 2004, it is very hard to integrate such efforts in ways that are both legal and effective.

Till the last week or so, the Romney campaign has been praised for its calm, discipline, and professionalism, but when one adopts a wider, organizational, perspective, it is clear that the main components of the Obama campaign are much more integrated, centralized and controlled than the more sprawling assemblage of different aligned and often well-resourced, but ultimately independent, groups backing the Republican nominee—not unlike the difference between the Bush and Kerry campaigns in 2004, in fact.

Why does this matter? Some political scientists studying elections argue that campaigns don’t matter much. The underlying logic of this stance is articulated with characteristic clarity by Larry Bartels, who has written: “In a world where most campaigners make reasonably effective use of reasonably similar resources and technologies most of the time, much of their effort will necessarily be without visible impact, simply because every campaigner’s efforts are balanced against more or less equally effective efforts to produce the opposite effect.”

But, as we can see again this year, there is little evidence to suggest we live in such a world. Competing campaigns often have different resources and technologies, use them in different ways, and are not always equally effective. Hence we need to understand how they work, and their efforts are unlikely to simply balance each other.

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

Cross-posted to Politics in Spires.

Campaign Lessons from the Wisconsin Recall Election—it’s not about television, field operations, or the internet, but about all of them

So June 5, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker beat his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett 53-46 in a expensive, hard-fought, and divisive recall election that gives a taste of what the fall general election will have to offer in swing states around the United States.

Here are three observations about money and where it comes from, about television versus field, and about the role of the internet that will also apply as Obama and Romney face each other—

First, this was a very expensive election and both candidate campaigns were heavily reliant on various forms of outside allies. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Project and the Center for Public Integrity, the Walker campaign spent $29.3 million and outside pro-Republican groups a further $18 million. Barrett spent $2.9 million, a tenth of the incumbent, and outside groups supporting him, many of them labor unions spent a further $15.5 million. Total expenditures equaled $65.7 million, or $26.2 per vote cast, up more than 50% from $37.4 million or $17.3 per vote cast in the 2010 gubernatorial election between the same two men. Most of the money, especially for the Walker campaign and the outside groups, came from out-of-state donors.

Second, both campaigns worked intensely to use all means at their disposal, whether advertising, spin, or volunteers talking to voters. Some commentary has cast the recall election as “TV ad spending vs. boots on the ground”, which certainly reflects Walker and his allies’ almost 3-1 edge in the money race but also an effort by Barrett and his allies to spin their financial inferiority into a compelling narrative of people vs. power. Both campaigns spent millions on television, and both campaigns mobilized thousands of volunteers to make millions of phone calls and door knocks to sway the undecided, shore up support from their base, and turn out their voters. (The news coverage suggests Barrett with his labor allies had an edge on the ground, but Walker certainly also had his own field operation running and some numbers suggest they’ve contacted more than 60% of all registered voters in the state at least once in person.)

Third, on both sides, we’ve also seen signs of new digital tools being battle-tested in advance of the fall general election. TechPresident reports that the Obama campaign tested their new “Dashboard” system to let volunteers from around the country make calls into Wisconsin, the AFL-CIO has trialed software that matches voter lists with volunteers’ Facebook friends to let them call targets that they actually know rather than total strangers, and the Walker campaign combined VoIP with digital voter files to automate the connection between identification calls and data entry. More “mundane tools” like email, websites with information about when and where to vote, and of course Facebook pages set up by volunteer groups or lower-level candidates themselves were also integral to the campaigns everywhere. As is the case elsewhere, the internet was not only a separate platform for a digital advertising and marketing strategy directed at voters, but also an infrastructure used for a lot of other campaign operations like fundraising and mobilization.

So the Wisconsin recall election was expensive, it involved campaigns heavily dependent on outside allies and grassroots help as they mixed and matched old and new forms of political communication, and it saw various internet tools used both to promote each candidate’s message online, but also as integral to more back-end operations rarely visible from the outside.

All this will be the case in the fall too when the vastly bigger and more complicated Obama and Romney campaigns and their many allies square off for the Presidential Election, drawing on money and manpower from around the country but focusing their efforts on a dozen or so swing states.

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

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

(image from the Barret campaign’s Flickr stream)