Can They Get the Vote Out?

Personalized political communication lead by volunteers, part-timers–the unsung folks ‘on the ground’ who canvass the neighborhoods–influences electoral outcomes in a big way. Recently Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns took some time to discuss  how behind the scenes changes in the way campaigns are run has a huge impact on voter turnout, and explain how the 2012 election will be a critical test of how much campaigns can do to increase turnout among their own supporters. Read his thoughts after the jump:


Can They Get the Vote Out?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

In every U.S. Presidential Election since 1996, turnout has increased. The Clinton-Dole-Perot race that year saw less than half of the electorate cast their vote, whereas almost sixty percent voted in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest. This year that upwards trend could end. Unless both President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee manages to mobilize massive field efforts, turnout in 2012 may well decline for the first time in sixteen years.

Electoral turnout is influenced by many factors. One reason why it has increased in recent years is that many voters have seen the relevant elections as more important and closely fought than for example the 1996 race—another that some people have been more enthused by George W. Bush and Barack Obama as candidates than they were with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton.

But another driver of the increasing turnout is a behind-the-scenes change in how political campaigns are waged. Throughout the 1990s, emphasis was mostly on media management, television advertising, and direct mail (remember the famous Clinton “war room”?). But in the 2000s, political operatives rediscovered the power of what I in my new book Ground Wars call “personalized political communication”—the use of people as media. They again began to prioritize field campaigns, spending millions on organizing efforts and mobilizing thousands of volunteers to knock on doors and call people at home, one at a time.

Speaking at a 2004 post-election conference, Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for the Bush-Cheney re-election effort, said that the campaign had spent five times more on field efforts than in 2000. The same year the liberal political action committee “America Coming Together” spent about $80 million on getting out the vote for Kerry. One team of researchers estimates that intensified get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides in 2004 increased turnout by more than 5 million voters.

As Mary Beth Cahill, who managed John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 put it, the renewed emphasis on field represents a “sea change in political tactics”—one that started well before the Obama campaign took off. For most of the post-war period that we have data on, between 20 and 30 percent of American voters reported they have been contacted in person by either major party in the run up to an election. In 2000, the figure grew to 35 percent. In every election since then, it has been above 40 percent. (See this graph based on ANES survey data.) Literally tens of millions of people are now contacted every cycle by volunteers and paid part-timers campaigning for different candidates and causes.

First the AFL-CIO in the late 1990s, then the Bush campaign in 2000 and later 2004, and increasingly also the Democratic Party (culminating in the 2008 campaign) has made a real concerted effort of re-engaging with potential volunteers and mobilize them to contact other voters to sway them and turn them out on Election Day. Organized by thousands of full-time campaign staffers working with tens of thousands of paid casual workers and volunteers and empowered by new digital and networked technologies for mobilization, coordination, and targeting, seemingly old-fashioned practices like door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are back at the heart of contemporary campaigning. The “ground war” is out of the shadows, fought door knock by door knock, phone call by phone call under cover of the “air war” of candidate debates and 30-second ads.

2012 will be a critical test of how much campaigns can do to increase turnout among their own supporters by means of canvassing, phone banking, and the like. The media report widespread disenchantment from parts of the liberal base, disappointed with President Obama’s first term in office. The primary so far suggests that the most likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney enjoys less than enthusiastic support from the GOP base (and his more conservative rivals are unlikely to appeal to moderates). Many independent voters may feel despondent over partisan gridlock in Congress and half-hearted about the 2012 election.

The prospects of a close race, intensified media coverage after the two party conventions in the summer, and the barrage of ads that await after Labour Day may increase people’s interest. But it will be on the ground, where candidate campaigns, party organizations, allied interest groups, and thousands and thousands of staffers, paid part-time workers, and volunteers work together to get out the vote, that the decisive effort to turn out the decisive majority will be made. The ability of the two sides to build effective field efforts to energize supporters and turn people out on Election Day will be decisive for whether turnout will remain high in 2012, or whether it will decline for the first time in sixteen years. If the election is closely fought (as is very likely), a superior get-out-the-vote operation may also turn out to be decisive for who occupies the Oval Office for the next four years. The Obama campaign is hard at work on how to improve their 2008 operation, and whoever the Republican Party nominates will have to think hard about how his campaign might do an even better job.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. In addition to Ground Wars, his most recent work, he has co-edited two previous books. His work has been published in academic journals including New Media & Society, Journal of Information Technology & Politics, and Journalism, and has been covered by media outlets including the BBC, the Economist, and the Guardian.