Category Archives: Ground wars

Next steps for Romney?

It continues to look like Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate for President in the fall. While he is still fighting a war of attrition with Rick Santorum, it will take a major game changer for him to lose the primary. So it is no surprise that he is increasingly orienting himself towards the general election.

What can the course of the campaign so far tell us about the challenges Romney will face and how he will try to tackle them?

The drawn-out primary has been a mixed blessing, forcing Romney to cater to a conservative base out of touch with many Americans, forcing him to spent time and money battling right-wing rivals when he would have preferred to train his guns on President Obama. It has also exposed some issues that Romney and his campaign will have to content with moving forward.

In short, Republicans aren’t really fired up about their likely Presidential candidate, and some may not be bothered to vote for him. This is a problem in what may very well be a very close race.

Moving to the general election, Romney has to make his pitch to independent voters, but also do his utmost to build a platform and an organization that can help him bring out the conservative base. If there is one thing Karl Rove taught us about American politics, it is that you cannot and should not take the base for granted, but actively cater to it and work to bring it out (his so-called “base-strategy”). The idea that simply not being Obama will do this for Romney is dangerous. The President is certainly not popular on the right, but Romney will need to fight for every vote, conservative or independent, to win in the fall.

Romney’s well-funded and professionally managed campaign organization has been highlighted as one of his advantages throughout the primary. As he begins to re-tool for the general election (while still dealing with Santorum et al at the same time), it will need to expand its presence on the ground and built a network of active supporters in all the potential battleground states. A proper field operation capable of getting out the vote is hard to put together on short notice. It takes time and effort to cultivate the relationships that animate a good ground game.

One of the advantages of the fiercely fought 2008 Democratic primary was that it left Obama with an organizational presence and strong supporter base across the country that also helped him fight and win the general election. In contrast, it is not clear that the Romney campaign has managed to maintain its presence even in states where it won the GOP primary. As Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel from the Guardian writes

Romney until recently had three offices in Florida, all directed to his primary battle against Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Yet despite the fact that no Republican has won the White House while losing Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Romney closed all three offices after the January 31 primary.

Calls to the main number of Romney’s Florida headquarters are sent to voicemail; the mailbox is full and will not accept further messages.

For all the talk about inevitability, it seems the Romney campaign is still mostly oriented towards winning the next primary states and has only just begun re-tooling for the general election. (I haven’t been able to find information on whether they remain active on the ground in Ohio and Virginia, it would be interesting to know.)

If they want to build an organization capable of fighting Obama for every inch in every contested state, they will need to maintain and continually expand a presence on the ground across the country. At the moment, they do not seem to be doing this. Come November, they may find there is a price to be paid for that.

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.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

(image from the Mitt Romney campaign’s Flickr stream)


April 2012 book talks

This is going to be a big month for me–I’m taking my book Ground Wars on the road in the US, and will give nine talks about the book at various universities and conferences around the country.

The list is below, details TBA for a few of them.

  • Monday April 9, 12-2pm, George Washington University, Washington D.C.
  • Tuesday April 10, 11-12.30pm, American University, Washington D.C.
  • Wednesday April 11, 10-12pm, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • Thursday April 12, 4-6pm, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois
  • Friday April 13, 4:35-6.15pm – Midwest Political Science Association 70th Annual Conference (I’m speaking as part of Panel 55-2 on political anthropology)
  • Monday April 16, 12-2pm, Columbia University, New York, New York (a comeback at my old school, in a colloquium series I used to organize)
  • Tuesday April 17, 6pm-8pm, New York University, Institute for Public Knowledge
  • Wednesday April 18, 12-1.3opm, Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Connecticut
  • Thursday April 19, 4.30-6.30pm, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Then Friday April 20, I’m speaking at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Texas-Austin, but not about the book–though after nine talks, who knows, I may automatically start talking about political campaigns rather than the journalistic online-start ups I’m supposed to focus on…

It’s been great to present the book in the UK and Denmark over the last two months but this of course is something special, a chance to talk about American politics with Americans, including in at least one instance with people who have worked on one of the campaigns I deal with in the book–that’s going to be a blast and a great experience, I’m sure.

Ground Wars on the road (March round-up)

I’ve given three talks about Ground Wars in Denmark in March, all have made for interesting discussions.

First of all, even taking into account the self-selection involved, people here are just really interested in and quite knowledgeable about American politics. That made for good conversation.

Second, we’ve just had a general election in the fall of 2011 where a few parties and trade unions worked with the kind of personalized political communication I analyze in the book, so obviously many people were interested in differences and similarities between US and Danish experiences. (I’ve written about that a while back.)

In April, I’m off to the US to give a string of talks in between two conferences, and I’m really looking forward to taking the book on the road and discussing it with people who really follow American political campaigns very closely—at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers, where I’m speaking April 19, I happen to know several people who worked on one of the campaigns I studied are coming. It will be particularly interesting to catch up with them again and hear their perspectives.

Review and book salon on Firedoglake

The US-based liberal political blog Firedoglake hosted a lively and interesting book salon discussion of my book this Sunday, moderated by Benjamin Kallos (NYC city council candidate, political consultant, and lawyer) and full of good questions from the FDL community.

Kallos has written a very nice review of my book that kicked off the discussion. Good reviews are of course always a joy to read, but I’m particularly happy that someone like him, with a rare combination of political experience, an activist pedigree, and very impressive academic credentials, likes the book. Here’s how he opens his review–

Ground Wars by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is an essential new bible for political campaigns locked in the everlasting battle that has become modern American politics.

Look at the discussion too, many interesting points and questions raised, more than we could hope to answer in one evening.

March 2012 book talks

I’m taking Ground Wars on the road in Denmark in March, with three events coming up–

Tuesday March 13, 7pm- at Frit Forum, Reventlowsgade 14, Copenhagen. Frit Forum is a Social Democrat-affiliated student organization. The Social Democrats were one of the party with the most ambitious “ground war”-type operations in the 2011 Danish General Election, so this will hopefully provide an interesting opportunity to hear about people’s experiences with field campaigning in Denmark.

Thursday March 15, 5pm-7pm at Operate (Jesper Brochmands Gade 10, Copenhagen), with Kommunikationsforeningen. This event is organized by the professional association for people working with communications, and also includes Rune Baastrup, who was one of the key people behind the labor union 3F’s work with personalized communication in the run up to the 2011 election and in terms of organizing and community-building. It should make for a great discussion.

Thursday March 29, 2pm-4pm at Copenhagen Business School, Center for the Study of the Americas. (Details to come.) CSA is one of the most interesting research environments in Denmark dealing with American issues, and I’ll be appearing alongside Niels Bjerre Poulsen who is a well-known Danish historian and expert on US politics, so it’s sure to be another interesting event.

Nothing “super” about Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday came and went, and I’m not sure people in the ten states involved felt it was all that “super”.

Despite some Republican party activists asserting this is the most important Presidential Election since George Washington was elected (no, really), voter turnout in several cases was lower than in the 2008 Republican Primary. Many of those who did vote were not enthusiastic about any of the candidates running (according to the Washington Post, “Barely more than four out of 10 voters in Ohio said they were strongly behind their candidate, according to exit polls”). And people aren’t enjoying the spectacle of the campaign itself either—the New York Times quotes a couple from Ohio complaining about the “barrage of ads” and “the phone calls, ugh … We get 15 a day.” (They must be new to the Buckeye State. It will get worse in November.)

At this point it seems clear that, barring some major mistake, damaging revelation, or outside event, Mitt Romney will grind his way to the Republican nomination. It is also clear that it is likely to take months. Rick Santorum in particular has no reason to concede at this point. It is not clear that he has any real chance of winning the nomination. (Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ has been crunching the numbers and makes a strong case it is highly improbably that Santorum, let alone Gingrich or Paul, can actually win the primary without dramatically improving their performance. The Washington Post has a similar analysis here.) But Santorum’s campaign is kept afloat by the lack of whole-hearted support for Romney in the Republican primary electorate, by media coverage, by outside money, and by the appearance of momentum off the back of a favourable electoral geography/timetable. He will probably do well in Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, the next states to vote—all southern, all primed for his folksy style and conservative message—but from late March and onwards, the demography swings in Romney favour as Illinois votes. In April, a raft of North-Eastern states have their primaries, states that Romney will probably win quite clearly on his way to locking up the nomination.

In 2008, the Republican Primary was over after Super Tuesday, the preponderance of winner-takes-all systems for allocating delegates meant that John McCain was comfortably ahead in the delegate count at an early point in time. Out of ten states to vote before February 6, 2008, McCain had won only three (New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida) Of the 21 that voted on Super Tuesday that year, he won 9, for a total of 12 out of 31. Mitt Romney, by comparison, had won a total 11 by then—but conceded the next day, accepting that there was no clear path for him to the nomination. In 2012, Romney has won 14 states out of 22 (including Ohio), and Santorum 6, but changes to how delegates are awarded means that Santorum retains a sheen of viability that will only be increased if he racks up more victories in the next couple of states. (It is an interesting question of how one covers this as a journalist—there is a danger to pronouncing people winners before they have actually won. Compare the New York Times coverage, which is very cautious about crowning Romney as the likely nominee, with the Washington Post, which is much less circumspect.)

Why this change to the rules, changes that keep Santorum alive and kicking where he would have been dead and buried under the old rules? After 2008, Republican Party leaders came to the conclusion that the drawn-out Obama-Clinton primary contest was actually an advantage for the Democratic Party, giving their candidates more exposure, battle-testing them, forcing them to built their campaigns across the country. Hence, as Karen Tumulty writes in the Washington Post, in the new system—

“The GOP nomination contest was designed to play out more slowly than in the past. Through the end of this month, states are required to allocate their delegates in proportion to the votes each candidate receives. That means just about everyone comes away from just about every contest with something to show for it — and a rationale for continuing to the next one.”

It is not clear this is working out very well for the Republican Party. As Dan Balz notes in the Washington Post, “Romney is in worse shape at this point in the campaign than virtually all recent previous nominees.” The exposure, the incessant negative campaigning, the party-internal wrangling and the rest of it is not working to the GOP’s advantage. Balz continues—

“Demographically, [Romney’s] image among independent voters, the most critical swing group, is more negative now than it was when the primary battle began. He could be hurt among women. He is in trouble with Latinos, a growing part of the electorate that is tilting even more Democratic than it was four years ago. He is not as strong as he needs to be among working-class white voters, among whom President Obama has been consistently weak.

Geographically, the numbers from several key states have been discouraging for the former Massachusetts governor. Pre-primary polls in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan showed him running behind Obama by low double digits. Ohio is a must-win for the Republican nominee in the fall, and Virginia is a state the GOP is determined to take back from the president. Republicans once thought Michigan would be a possible battleground, but at this point it isn’t.“

Every Republican Party leader, operative, and activist who looks at the trajectory of the primary will have to consider whether the drawn-out contest is undermining the party’s prospects in the fall. Many are clearly pushing hard for the GOP to rally around Romney.

But as long as Santorum and the rest insists on plugging on, their wealthy backers are willing to bankroll them, and between a third and half the Republican primary electorate keeps on voting for them, they can do it. Hence, while Super Tuesday gave Romney a string of victories (and important ones at that), it was more like another day at the office than a particularly “super” day for him too. Both he and many voters would probably wish for this to be over sooner rather than later. But Romney will just have to grind his teeth and grind his rivals down, week after week, state after state, driving away independent and alienating party activists simply by not being as conservative as they are, while President Obama and his people built his re-election campaign and prepares for the final showdown in the fall.

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.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

February 2012 book talks

Monday February 13, 5pm-6.30pm at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford. This is the official launch of my book, a talk moderated by Nigel Bowles with Tom Wales serving as a respondent, to be followed by a wine reception. The RAI is an ideal venue for this, first of course because it is the hub of all things American in Oxford, but also because I finished my revisions on the manuscript in their wonderful library. The venue is here.

Tuesday February 21, 5.15pm-6.30pm at the New Political Communications Unit, Royal Holloway, University of London. This event is hosted by Andrew Chadwick whose work I’ve learned much from, so I’m looking forward to discussing the book with him, his colleagues, and the rest of the RHU community. The venue is here.

Wednesday February 22 (time and location TBA) at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster My host is Anastasia Kavada, with whom I’ve had many an animated conversation about digital politics and protest at various conferences. It’s my first visit to CAMRI, an internationally famous media and communications department, so I’m sure it will make for very interesting conversation.

More information upcoming on talks in March (in Denmark) and April (in the United States). Stay tuned…

“Ground Wars” published

My book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns is now officially out. At the most basic level, the book is about the role of people in political communication in the early 21st century.

It has sort of leaked on to Amazon and other sites over the last few weeks, but yesterday was the official publication date and hard copies should now be available.

The book provides a close ethnographic account of how American campaigns have responded to a shifting media environment, the rise of new digital and networked technologies, and a changed political scene by re-inventing what I call “personalized  political communication”—the use of people as media—and are again deploying large teams of staffers, volunteers, and paid part-timers to work the phones and canvass block by block, house by house, voter by voter. You can read the first chapter here. The book is available on and (and I’m sure every decent rail road station kiosk and airport bookstore will have the paperback edition prominently displayed next to James Patterson’s latest…).

I’ll be writing occassionally about the 2012 U.S. elections on this site and on on Politics in Spires on the basis of the issues I analyze in the book, such as personalized contacts, volunteer mobilization, and the targeting of voters.

“Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Mitt Romney campaign, calling you from my computer…”

So Mitt Romney won what the Washington Post calls a “decisive victory” in Florida yesterday, and while the Republican presidential primary isn’t quite over (a majority of the votes still went to his three remaining rivals, donations keep coming in to Newt Gingrich especially), the former Massachusetts governor is now well-positioned to lock up the nomination on “Super Tuesday,” March 6, where people in eleven states cast their votes.

If Romney becomes the candidate, a closer look at his current campaign can help us understand how he will fight the general election. In past cycles, most recently of course in 2008, the way candidates fought their primary gave many clues to how they ended up fighting the general election—in terms of their stage persona and their main message, yes, but also in terms of how their effort was organized in a more practical sense.

Building a campaign organization, mobilizing allies around it, and recruiting thousands of low-level staffers and volunteers is not something that is easily done overnight, and the wider campaign build around a particular candidacy will have its own internal inertia and idiosyncrasies, traits that often reflect decisions made months or even years before Election Day on the basis of a combination of received wisdom and the priorities of individual people involved. Once things are done in a particular way, unless something is clearly dysfunctional, intense time pressure and the multiple concerns always calling for the attention of the candidate and senior staff generally mean they continue to be done that way.

Take the 2008 Obama campaign as an example—the kernel was assembled from early 2007 onwards, with staffers plotting strategy and tactics, technologists developing the tools and infrastructures for an extensive, nation-wide effort, and organizers connecting with the multitudes of willing volunteers who helped power Obama to victory in both the primary and the general election. As for example David Plouffe, the campaign manager, has made clear, even as the campaign (both the formal organization and the wider network of allies and volunteers around it) grew and grew, senior staffers were working hard to maintain a basic set of organizing principles and a certain internal ethos that had worked well in the primary. (Sometimes dealing with enthusiastic groundswells of support from people unaccustomed to how campaigns are usually run in a pretty top-down fashion was in fact something of a challenge, as David Axelrod himself has noted.) As my friend Daniel Kreiss shows in his very interesting forthcoming book on the development of the campaign and the technologies and tools it relied on, many of the innovations we today associate with the 2008 Obama campaign where in fact pioneered, tested, and refined in the years before. (Just as the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns built on years of experimentation in local and state-level races, orchestrated by Karl Rove.)

On this basis, let’s have a look at just two features of the Romney primary campaign that it will be interesting to follow as we move forward—

  • How much volunteer support does Romney actually have? Many commentators have made much of how parts of the Republican base have yet to warm to his candidacy, but beyond a general “mood” amongst the party faithful, can he draw substantial numbers of people to his campaign? Beyond the raw numbers, can his campaign work constructively with these people to make sure that they feel involved and continue to contribute their time and effort?  Volunteers have generally been found to be more effective ambassadors for campaigns on the doorstep and over the phone than paid casual workers, so whoever builds the best volunteer operation will have an edge over his rival. (Turnout in US presidential elections has been increasing every cycle since 1996, in part due to increased emphasis on field campaigns. Given the current economic climate and a certain sense of disillusionment, in the absence of major get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides, 2012 may see the first fall in popular participation in sixteen years.)
  • How will his campaign work with the volunteers who do come? Throughout the primary, Romney’s campaign has made a priority of having a physical presence on the ground, opening campaign offices and posting contact details in relevant states to make sure people have somewhere to go. His campaign has also embraced the various online-enabled forms of “distributed phone banking” pioneered by MoveOn and others, where supporters can log on via a campaign website and make calls directly to target voters in relevant states from their own smart phone or computer. In both cases, the campaign has quite sensibly been platform agnostic, deciding to make as many different forms of engagement possible and to meet potential volunteers where ever they may come from. In both cases, the campaign has also prioritized channelling people’s time and energy into phone banking, a demonstrably effective way of trying to sway people and turn out voters.

At a general level, coverage of the primary will often stress how Romney’s campaign is well-funded and professionally run. But money and hard-nosed expertise is not all an effective campaign needs. The interface between campaign staffers in it to win it and volunteers with a much wider and mixed set of motivations can generate considerable friction and requires mutual empathy and a practical sense for making people work together that is sometimes lacking from political campaigns. And it matters. Volunteer mobilization and the translation of volunteers’ time and effort into instrumentally useful activities may sound dry and dull in comparison to the more immediately exciting speculation about what the next campaign advertisement will highlight or how the candidate will perform in the next debate. But both are crucial parts of a competitive campaign and shape how it is possible for ordinary people to take part in the electoral process beyond casting their vote. That’s why it will be interesting to see how the eventual Republican nominee ends up organizing his effort to challenge Obama’s re-election campaign.

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.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

Gingrich needs an organization (and fast)

Newt Gingrich’s clear come-from-behind victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary has made the Republican Presidential Primary a lot more exciting than it looked after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Clearly, many Republicans remain reluctant to embrace Romney. If the opposition coalesce around Gingrich, the not-Romney of the moment, the party is in for a long grind of a primary.

One question right now is whether Gingrich has the organization to make the most of his momentum.

Florida, January 31, is the first test. Romney has been ahead in the polls there lately, but his support is eroding and as recently as December, Gingrich had a solid lead. The political climate in the sunshine state can be fickle and is prone to dramatic changes. It serves one well to be well prepared.

In South Carolina, Gingrich was able to build on his strong debate performances, “earned media”, i.e. news coverage playing up alternatives to the front-runner, and the self-reinforcing momentum generated as more and more people came to see him as the most credible challenger to rally a plurality of the non-Romney vote around him. If Santorum drops out now or his supporters begin to think that a vote for him is a vote wasted, Gingrich has the potential to be a considerable challenge for Romney.

But “the Mitt” seems better equipped for the tough grind ahead. While he continues to have a “base problem”, he does better than anyone else in hypothetical match-ups against President Obama, lending credence to his argument he is best positioned to do well in the November general election.

Romney also has a much stronger operation in place to fight for the margins in every upcoming state. Consider just money, organization, and organized support–

Money. A long multi-state primary is expensive. Romney has raised much more money than Gingrich. In the last quarter of 2011, he raised $24 million, compared to Gingrich’s $9 million.

Organization. A long multi-state primary is also complicated to coordinate and involves a lot of hard work on the ground. Romney has his organization, data infrastructure, web presence etc in place nationally. He is very active in states like Florida, where his campaign has been working for months, both on the air and on the ground (Gingrich opened his office there January  13). Romney also already has an office in Nevada (caucuses February 4). It is not clear that the Gingrich campaign has any real presence there. In December, a local operative working with his campaign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there were no immediate plans to open an office in the state. (That is bound to change after his South Carolina win.)

Organized support. A long multi-state primary is not something you want to fight on your own. Romney is not only racking up endorsements, fundraising contacts, inside advice etc from establishment Republicans afraid Gingrich just might win and wreck the party in the process. He also enjoys greater Super PAC/ “outside” support. Even after Sheldon Adelson’s headline-grabbing $5 million donation to the pro-Gingrich-though-in-no-way-coordinating-with-his-campaign “Winning Our Future” super PAC, Romney continues to enjoy more support. The pro-Romney group “Restore Our Future,” run by two key staffers from his 2008 campaign, has spent more than double the amount of “Winning our Future” so far. It will provide a handy vehicle for people keen to stop Gingrich but reluctant to back Romney directly.

Where does that leave Gingrich? Can he build on yesterday’s result? Here is what Mac Stipanovich, a GOP strategist in Florida, had to say to the LA Times:

“Romney has worked the state continuously, one way or another, for the last six years. …  Gingrich lacks both the organization and the financial resources to capitalize on a win in South Carolina.”

That may just be true of the February states Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan too.

Good organization does not guarantee victory, but it sure helps. If Gingrich is to compete in the long run, he and his supporters need to build a stronger and more resourceful campaign now to capitalize on the anti-Romney sentiment. Otherwise, “the Mitt” will grind them down.

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.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)