Whither the Ground War?

By Dana R. Fisher

In Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s recently published Ground Wars, the author provides a detailed account of the continued importance of people power in American politics.  Using data collected from ethnographic research with two Democratic campaigns for the House of Representatives in 2008, the author tells the story of how the Democratic party runs its field operations, working with individual volunteers and part-timers to get their candidates elected (or not, as is the case with one of the two case studies in the book).  The book provides an interesting account of the political Left in America.  However, it leaves the reader very curious to understand how the two cases presented fit within the apparatus of the Democratic Party, as well as into the broader spectrum of politics in America today. As we look towards the upcoming election, big questions arise about how the field will be managed and the ground war fought this year for both the Democrats and the Republicans.  Thanks to research conducted by a handful of scholars including Nielsen, we know a decent amount about how field operations work on the political Left and how the Democratic ground war has changed in the past ten years.

Perhaps we know the most about the 2008 election, which turned out voters at the same levels as the 2004 election.  Even though the overall numbers were the same, however, there were significant differences in turnout for these two elections based on the age and race of the voters.  Specifically, young people and black Americans were engaged at unprecedented levels, with Barack Obama receiving 95% of the black vote.  The candidate benefitted from numerous measures that the campaign took to mobilize citizens to participate in the campaign and vote.  In particular, the Obama campaign developed a program to train organizers, getting them into the field to oversee some 1.5 million volunteers who contributed their time and energy to win the ground war in 2008 (see my 2012 Annual Review of Sociology article “Youth Political Participation: Bridging Activism and Electoral Politics” for more details).  With its extensive efforts to mobilize citizens both face-to-face and through computer mediated technologies, some have called the 2008 Obama campaign a movement to get Barack Obama elected.

But what about 2012?  So far, there are few signs that a tidal wave of volunteer activity is coming.  The Obama campaign seems to be spending a significant amount of its time engaging its impressively large email list in requests for donations.  There is no question that money is going to play a big role in this election (as it does in most national political campaigns), but it is unclear how the 2012 ground war will be fought.  Obviously, some of the differences in how Americans are getting involved in the Obama campaign is due to the fact that Barack Obama is no longer a junior Senator from Illinois who has a background in community organizing.  Moreover, the United States is not in the process of finishing up eight years of the George W. Bush Administration.  Today, Barack Obama is the incumbent President who has managed the country during four years of challenging economic times.

As all of us who study collective action know, it is much easier to mobilize support to protest the status quo than in support of current policies and politicians.  In other words, with a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans will have an easier time mobilizing their constituents to volunteer to support the Romney-Ryan ticket.  In his posting on “Organizing as a Campaign Strategy,” Marshall Ganz notes that field campaigns vary significantly based on who is running the field and the candidate him/herself.  Although much of the team running the Obama campaign is the same as the 2008 election, it is still unclear how effective their ground war will be.

In addition, as has been noted repeatedly in recent years, there is very little known about the other side.  Although many have alluded to the differences in how the Republican party and its affiliates connect with citizens and engage them in their political campaigns, very little structured research has been published to date.  It would be wonderful to have ethnographic research on Republican campaigns to compare with those conducted by Nielsen.  Without studying the ground wars taking place on the both the Left and the Right it is impossible to get a full understanding of how field operations work in electoral politics in America.  Moreover, the lack of data makes it very hard to understand what matters the most when campaigns aim to mobilize American citizens to get involved, how ideology and other differences in field operations may play a role, and how all of these differences affect the outcomes of elections.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

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