“Ground Wars” and Beyond

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

It’s a real pleasure to read so many interesting essays on Ground Wars—books are meant to be used, and the discussions hosted here on Mobilizing Ideas show some of the many ways in which I hope the argument and research I’ve presented in my book will be put to use in different contexts.

All the essays confirm the main thesis advanced in Ground Wars. It goes basically like this—

1)     American political campaigns today face a specific combination of increased media fragmentation, low and uneven interest in politics, and a high degree of partisan polarization that makes field operations—primarily pursued in the form of canvassing and phone banking—particularly appealing to campaign strategists.

2)     Experimental research has shown that personalized contacts are particularly effective ways of mobilizing “lazy partisans” and may even help persuade some of the (rare) swing voters.  The development of new information and communication technologies and accumulation over years of huge databases maintained by the two national parties enable increasingly precise targeting of these contacts, making them more efficient, and campaigns in part as a consequence invest more and more money and manpower in orchestrating larger and larger field programs to reach more and more voters.

3)     These developments have driven the extraordinary resurgence of “ground wars” we have seen over the last decade, as American campaigns contact more and more people in person in the run-up to Election Day—from a post-war average of about 25% of the adult population, the two major parties contacted more than 35% of the population in 2000 and have reached over 40% in every presidential election year since.

Contacting more than 40% of the adult American population is hard—hard as in “hard work” and hard as in “hard to get to work”, as anyone who has ever been part of a political campaign will confirm. Reaching literally millions of people in person in their home is an enormous logistical challenge faced by a limited number of campaign staffers working alongside various allied outside organizations, variable numbers of volunteers, and, where no other sources of man power suffice, large numbers of lowly paid part-time workers knocking on doors for $10/hour.

Ground Wars is about how all these different elements work together as they try to reach their target voters, one person at a time. It is about, as Daniel Kreiss put it, “actually existing democracy”, everyday American electoral politics as it works behind the scenes, away from the headlines and the tweets that go viral, as it is experienced by the thousands of staffers who work their hearts out, the millions of volunteers and paid part-timers who knock on doors and make calls, and the tens of millions of citizens who are at the receiving end of this seemingly old-fashioned form of political communication in its contemporary, data-driven, internet-assisted incarnation.

It is also a first step towards a social scientific analysis of a phenomenon, and a way of analyzing politics, that calls for much, much more work, as many of the essayists commenting on the book here have rightly pointed out. Let me highlight just a few of the points made by the reviewers here that I regard as some of the areas most in need of further work if we are to understand contemporary political campaigns and go beyond the analysis presented in Ground Wars.

1)     As Dana Fisher highlights, work done by her, myself, and others on field campaigning by the Democratic Party and some of its allies needs to be matched by similar attention to how Republican campaigns work with personalized political communication. The Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove-orchestrated 72-hour campaign and STOMP-programs have been the subject of some journalistic attention and a considerable amount of myth-making, but little serious scholarly work has been done on how the political right wages ground wars, and it is clear that not only party, but also the priorities of the candidate, top management, and many other factors influence how campaigns are structured and waged (as underlined by both Marshall Ganz and Evan Sutton).

2)     As Daniel Kreiss writes, my own work and research in a similar vein would profit much from a stronger and more direct connection to a growing body of political science work interested in understanding parties as informal and formal networks of organizations that work, sometimes uneasily, as what I call “assemblages” when they pursue shared goals with a wide variety of outside allied groups and interest organizations. With a few exceptions, it is still the case that American parties are least often studied as what they most obviously are—organizations, and differently organized ones at that. (The rise of the so-called “super PACs”, highlighted by both Zephyr Teachout and David Karpf, only makes this point more important, as does the evident differences in how the two major parties in the US—let alone elsewhere—have developed their ICT infrastructures.) Some work is being done in this area, but much more is needed—where are the organizational studies of campaign fundraising, of knowledge-sharing organizations like the New Organizing Institute or back-end coordinators like America Votes or Freedom Works?

3)     Finally, as Andreas Jungherr rightly points out, we need more comparative work. As made clear from the beginning, my book is exclusively focused on American campaigns and the very particular situation they find themselves in today. Campaigns elsewhere, in for example much of Western Europe, are also experimenting with personalized political communication, but they do so in different party systems, different media systems, facing different electorates, and with different resources. (“Those who only know one country know no country”, as Seymour Martin Lipset is supposed to have said.)

Ground Wars is deliberately positioned at the intersection of communications research, sociology, and political science, and I hope it will appeal to scholars from each of these disciplines as well as political practitioners and activists. The three disciplines I draw on in my own work all need to profit more from each others’ work for us to advance our understanding of how political communications, political organizations, and political participation works today.

In particular, I hope my piece of political ethnography can help show how quantitative studies, secondary sources, and elite interviews need to be supplemented to truly get to grips with how American politics is actually practiced on the ground. Political communication researchers and political scientists in my view need to supplement their well-honed skills in survey and experimental research with sociological tools like ethnographic field research (where we can learn much from social movement studies). To be a bit polemical—those of us who study politics and political communication need to get out more. There is a whole world out there that we have a responsibility to try to understand.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

2 responses to ““Ground Wars” and Beyond

  1. But the inaccuracies are just one dimension of the Super PAC effect. Donations supporting political candidates are not new. But until now, America was heading in the right direction: towards a more equal and democratic way of funding campaigns.


  2. Pingback: Essay dialogue around “Ground Wars” | rasmuskleisnielsen.net

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