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.


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