Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns is my first book, published by Princeton University Press in 2012.

In 2014, it won the Doris Graber Award, given by the American Political Science Association to the best book published on political communication in the last ten years.

The book deals with how what I call ‘personalized political communication’ is practiced by political campaigns in the United States. It focuses on ‘ground war’ practices, what campaign staffers also call ‘field’, most importantly door-to-door canvassing and phone banking, both pursued with the help of allied groups, volunteers, and paid part-time employees. This kind of communication is personalized in the sense that people, and not television, websites, etc, serve as media for messages.

Survey research demonstrates that tens of millions of citizens are contacted in person or by phone by parties and candidates each cycle (see for instance ANES), and experimental research in political science suggests that it works (see for instance the Yale studies). To put it bluntly, we know personalized political communication happens, and that it works–my book focus on how it works, and what that in turns means for political communication, political organizations, and political participation in American democracy.


“If the medium is the message, Nielsen shows that a key medium in campaigns is person-to-person communication. His sharp analysis and careful ethnographic storytelling reveal both the high level strategic role and the human experience of personal political communication in contemporary elections.”–W. Lance Bennett, University of Washington

“Having embedded himself with the grunts in the political trenches of two ordinary congressional elections, Nielsen demonstrates how elections involve the selling of democracy to an often reluctant or uninterested public. Ground Wars is a sterling example of political ethnography.”–Herbert J. Gans, former president of the American Sociological Association

“Nielsen provides a trenchant and thought-provoking account of what campaigns look like at ground level. His ethnography offers a rare glimpse into what canvassing and phone banking mean to those who try to reach vast numbers of voters in the run-up to Election Day. This book is a welcome companion to more abstract, quantitative studies of campaigns and elections.”–Donald P. Green, Columbia University

“Nielsen presents a very compelling analysis of an often-neglected aspect of modern electoral campaigns. He challenges the idea that political communication must be tightly controlled and scripted, correctly arguing that personalized, labor-intensive communication prone to individual inflection and enthusiasm represents American democracy in action. Ground Wars is an important and timely book.”–Dennis W. Johnson, author of No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants Are Reshaping American Democracy


This book is a revelation. It forces us to think hard about campaigns and in a new way. … What is more, it could not have had this effect but for its ethnographic method.

Richard Johnston, review in Political Communication

Through a meticulously detailed, and at times quite humorous, ethnographic narrative, Nielsen reveals the emotional labor and the technological, political, and financial assemblages that pool together for a few months to fight in the “ground wars” … Nielsen’s book is essential reading.

Mary F. E. Ebeling, review in Contemporary Sociology

“A gripping read. Well researched, insightful and full of wonderful snapshots drawn from observations made during the research. If you really want to understand campaigning, this is the book to read.”

Darren G. Lilliker, Politics, PR & Marketing

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.”

Benjamin Kallos, Firedoglake


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