Category Archives: Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

“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.  Continue reading


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How the Pimp with the Limp is the Key to Winning Campaigns

By Evan Sutton

What do DJ LAZ (AKA, Miami’s “Pimp with the Limp”), the Food Network, #Eastwooding,, your smart phone, and a neighbor knocking on your door have in common?

Each one is a key part of how President Obama’s re-election campaign plans to win on November 6. The formula is simple: reach each of us where we are, engage us with a message based in values and shared experiences, and motivate us to take action.

This strategy is apparent in actions big and small. Obama won’t win because of Twitter, but a recent moment shows just how seriously the campaign is taking the need to meet people where they are with a values-based message. Continue reading


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Ground Wars: Round 2

Continuing our dialogue on grassroots campaigns and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s book, Ground Warswe have a second round of essays, written by contributors with both scholarly expertise and practical campaign experience.  Also, Nielsen has agreed to write a brief response to wrap up this dialogue toward the end of the month.

Dana R. Fisher, University of Maryland (essay)
Evan Sutton, New Organizing Institute (essay)
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University (essay)
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Roskilde University, Denmark (essay)

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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. Continue reading

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Big Data and Big Money

By Zephyr Teachout

The last ten years have witnessed two revolutions in political organizing: I will identify them as the big data transformation, and the big money transformation. The first is the revolution wrought by the internet and data mining: the use of the internet for organizing, fundraising, spreading news, and voter turn out. This is what is covered in what looks to be a fascinating book, Kleis Nielsen¹s Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. The second is the revolution wrought by law, namely, the Supreme Court. In a series of cases culminating in Citizens United, the Supreme Court struck down several democratically passed laws designed to cabin the direct political influence of corporations.

I am particularly interested in observing the interaction between these two changes, both of which have implications for the institutions of campaigns.

The Big Data change gives relative power to two groups: Continue reading

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September Dialogue: Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

Our September essay dialogue uses Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s new book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2012) as a jumping off point to discuss grassroots campaign strategies as they relate to the upcoming U.S. Presidential and Congressional elections.

Ground Wars investigates how “personalized political communication” is shaping campaigns and electoral outcomes.  Modern canvassing uses technical infrastructure, highly developed databases, and other party resources to launch highly targeted voter campaigns.  We have asked contributors to react to this advanced form of grassroots campaigning, its implications for the future of American politics, and its potential impact on American democracy more broadly.

Our contributors to this dialogue have written fascinating essays, drawing on scholarly work in multiple disciplines and practical experience on the campaign trail.  Four essays are posted now, and we will have a second round mid month.

Marshall Ganz, Harvard University (essay)
Andreas Jungherr, University of Bamberg, Germany (essay)
David Karpf, George Washington University (essay)
Daniel Kreiss, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (essay)

We sincerely thank our contributors for their essays, and we hope you enjoy the discussion.  As always, please join the discussion by posting your thoughts, reactions, or opinions in the comments.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers


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Organizing as a Campaign Strategy

By Marshall Ganz

Rasmus Klies Nielsen’s Ground Wars brings refreshing focus to the role interpersonal communication can play in even the most high-tech, high dollar, high-profile 2012 electoral campaign. This is an important reality check for those who think it’s all simply a matter of who can buy the best ads.

There is, however, another aspect to this question that I’d like to highlight: the difference in whether one employs interpersonal communication as yet another marketing technique or whether it is used to engage people in organizing to become active participants in the political process.  This distinction is of particular significance for Democrats who cannot rely on the network of gun clubs, evangelical churches, right to life groups, and tea party chapters that so successfully provided the grassroots base for an ascendant conservative movement over the course of the last 30 years.  Continue reading


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People as Media: Campaigns and Actually Existing Democracy

By Daniel Kreiss

In Ground Wars, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen makes an important contribution in revealing and analyzing an important trend in political campaigning that has taken shape over the last two decades: the increasing investment in face-to-face political communication through field efforts.  Nielsen describes how over-saturation in advertising markets, media fragmentation, and signature social science field experiments have lead to candidates at all levels of office engaging in “ground wars” fought by volunteers and paid canvassers going door-to-door to identify the partisan affiliations of and deliver messages to voters—all in the hope of bringing sympathizers to the polls on election day.  In light of these findings, Nielsen shows how much political communication scholars have overlooked in focusing so much attention on television advertising and press coverage.  Continue reading

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Is GOTV a universally applicable answer for campaigns to the challenge of fragmented audiences?

By Andreas Jungherr

In his recent book Ground Wars Rasmus Kleis Nielsen[i] offers an insightful look inside the workings of the Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) effort of Democratic candidates for US-congress during the campaign in 2008.  This detailed account of the goals, methods and actual practices of GOTV efforts is in and of itself interesting but it also offers insights to a much deeper and more decisive question present day campaigners face. Namely, how do campaigns and candidates effectively reach their potential voters in an age of abundant media choices, fragmented audiences and information saturation?  Personalized GOTV efforts, as described by Nielsen in his book, might offer a temporary answer. But an answer, as he will probably be the first to state, whose actual effectiveness over time, varying campaign contexts, and different countries has yet to be proven. Continue reading

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Data Wizardry, An Ocean of Cash, and “Mundane” Revolutions: The 2012 Election and the Internet

By David Karpf

2012 is the year when the Internet moves firmly into the background for political campaigns.

In the 2000 election, the web was a novelty.  Candidate McCain attracted headlines through his post-New Hampshire online fundraising, but otherwise the medium was mostly used for reinforcement, not persuasion.

In the 2004 election, Howard Dean demonstrated the power of the new medium for partisan mobilization.  Dean supporters used the web to donate, to volunteer online, and to MeetUp offline.  Heavy media attention followed, even if primary victories did not.   Continue reading

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