Ground Wars

Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Ground Wars
    Book Description:

    Political campaigns today are won or lost in the so-called ground war--the strategic deployment of teams of staffers, volunteers, and paid part-timers who work the phones and canvass block by block, house by house, voter by voter.Ground Warsprovides an in-depth ethnographic portrait of two such campaigns, New Jersey Democrat Linda Stender's and that of Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, who both ran for Congress in 2008.

    Rasmus Kleis Nielsen examines how American political operatives use "personalized political communication" to engage with the electorate, and weighs the implications of ground war tactics for how we understand political campaigns and what it means to participate in them. He shows how ground wars are waged using resources well beyond those of a given candidate and their staff. These include allied interest groups and civic associations, party-provided technical infrastructures that utilize large databases with detailed individual-level information for targeting voters, and armies of dedicated volunteers and paid part-timers. Nielsen challenges the notion that political communication in America must be tightly scripted, controlled, and conducted by a select coterie of professionals. Yet he also quashes the romantic idea that canvassing is a purer form of grassroots politics. In today's political ground wars, Nielsen demonstrates, even the most ordinary-seeming volunteer knocking at your door is backed up by high-tech targeting technologies and party expertise.

    Ground Warsreveals how personalized political communication is profoundly influencing electoral outcomes and transforming American democracy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4044-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. PROLOGUE Welcome to the Campaigns
    (pp. 1-3)

    At 7:55 p.m. we stop calling, and the campaign office is suddenly quiet. Nobody seems to know what will happen next. People just sit in front of their phones. After a few minutes, somebody says quietly, “It’s eight o’clock.” The polls are closing now. There is nothing more we can do.

    People begin to get up; some start talking; a few grab snacks from the table in the volunteer room. Kesari, one of the field organizers, goes around hugging people. She has tears in her eyes as she says, again and again, “I can’t believe it’s over!” She is hoarse...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Personalized Political Communication in American Campaigns
    (pp. 4-34)

    Charlene is in her late thirties, African American, and looking for a job. Her home is in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a decaying, de-industrialized city with an unemployment rate over 10 percent and about 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Right now she is making ten dollars an hour canvassing for the Connecticut Democrats’ coordinated campaign—and gets a gas card every week too. “It helps pay the bills,” she says. She finished her Microsoft Office User Specialist class at Workforce, Inc., this afternoon, and since then we have been out walking door-to-door, talking to voters.

    Charlene knocks...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Ground War Enters the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 35-62)

    “I don’t think you’ll see much field in that district; I think you’ll see mostly mail and television.” This prediction was made by an experienced campaign manager and high-level political aide who had worked for much of the 1980s and 1990s in one of the two states where I did my research. Given my interest in the ground war, it was hardly what I hoped to hear in the background interview I conducted in early April in her elegant Manhattan pied-à-terre, but such is life.

    “This cycle, the D-trip [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)], the state party, and the...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Contacting Voters at Home
    (pp. 63-94)

    Since four o’clock on this warm and sunny August afternoon, I have been canvassing with Allen in affluent, suburban Trumbull, Connecticut. He is a college senior doing an internship with Himes for Congress over the summer. We are walking a list with about a hundred targeted voters distributed across roughly eighty households. It will take us something like four hours to knock on every door in a terrain like this. We expect to speak to maybe thirty people. The canvassing director will come back to pick us up around eight.

    Three more canvassing teams are working in pairs to “knock...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Organizing Campaign Assemblages
    (pp. 95-132)

    The campaign manager and the canvassing director are sipping beers late at night, watching a ballgame and talking about the field effort. “Like all campaigns,” the campaign manager says, “this is in the end an enterprise run by two or three adults and a bunch of kids.” He continues: “What you and I are doing is like industrial engineering. It’s about keeping people in line and finding ways to contact more people in less time at a lower cost, whether that means covering more turf by finding better ways to walk the streets, ways of increasing the contact rate, or...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Targeting Voters for Personal Contacts
    (pp. 133-170)

    Charlene and I are heading out for another canvass in the Bridgeport area. As we walk from the campaign office toward her car, we pass by a man wearing a janitor’s uniform. He is smoking a cigarette outside a downtown office building. She approaches him and asks, “Have you heard of Jim Himes?” He has not.

    They have a brief and friendly conversation—it turns out that he is a union member and “always” votes for Democrats. Charlene takes down his name and contact information, scribbling it on the back of one of her walk sheets, identifying him as a...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Always Fighting the Same Ground War?
    (pp. 171-188)

    Bill, Glenn, and I are in the basement of the Mount Aery Baptist Church, setting up tables with snacks for people to enjoy as they mingle a bit after a last-minute rally. Jim Himes is about to appear before the congregation of this important African American church alongside several prominent local and national Democrats. His chances pretty much hinge on turnout here in Bridgeport.

    Bill is in his seventies and retired after a successful career in public relations. He has been volunteering countless hours on the campaign. Glenn is in his late twenties, works for a local elected official, and...

  11. Research Appendix
    (pp. 189-208)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 209-220)
  13. References
    (pp. 221-234)
  14. Index
    (pp. 235-239)