Will the Ground Wars Help?

This weekend, the GOP plans a massive volunteer effort to make 2 million voter contacts, in the hopes of capitalizing on Romney’s strong performance in the first debate. But how important is personal campaign contact in this day and age? Is knocking on doors and making phone calls a quaint throwback to simpler times, or a powerful opportunity to sway the undecided voter? Rasmus Kleis Nielsen‘s new book Ground Wars is a look at how personalized political communication continues to impact electoral outcomes and with it, American democracy. Now as the presidential campaigns switch into high gear, he takes to Election 101 to look at how the ground wars are being waged, and to what effect, especially in the highly contested swing states.


Every Little Bit Counts…Especially for Romney

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen


The Presidential election is nearing the home stretch, and both campaigns know every little bit counts as most likely voters are finally paying attention. Barack Obama is ahead in the polls in every swing state, and the Romney campaign will have to pull off a major upset to win in November.

In the final weeks, the bulk of media attention will focus on the debates, the daily battle to control the news agenda, and the ads released by the two campaigns, but under the cover of this “air war”, both sides are also preparing the final offensive in the “ground war” waged to capture every last persuadable swing voter and make sure every single sympathizer turns out to vote.

On the ground, the Obama and Romney campaigns are pursuing the same goal, but by different means. Both want to make that extra phone call and door knock to reach the undecided and go that extra mile to make sure the so-called “lazy partisans” get off the couch and cast their vote. But the ways in which they do it differ in important ways.

Barack Obama’s field operation is building on the staff, technology, and volunteer infrastructure of his highly successful 2008 campaign. President Obama does not seem to inspire the volunteer enthusiasm that Senator Obama did, but his campaign is more experienced, more generously staffed, and has had four years to further fine-tune their organizing and targeting technologies and test their tactics (in the battle around health care as well as in select races in the 2010 mid-terms). Efforts by local Democrats and especially organized labor will complement the Obama campaign in important ways, but the backbone of the President’s field operation is controlled by the Chicago headquarter and has been developed over the last four years at a deliberate pace.

Mitt Romney’s field operation, in contrast, is not even technically his. The Republican ground game is instead organized primarily through the Republican National Committee, which has invested millions in offices in swing states, hundreds of staffers on the ground, and updated technologies for targeting voters and organizing outreach. In addition, Romney will rely on help from outside allies including American Crossroads, the National Rifle Association, and the Christian Coalition, all of whom are engaged in well-financed voter outreach programs to make sure various Republican constituencies are turned out for Romney. Like the Republican National Committee, these outside groups have been able to plan their field operations well before it was known who the Republican nominee would be, but they have not had the advantage afforded their Democratic counterparts, who knew exactly who their candidate was.

These two campaigns wage very different ground wars—one campaign is relatively centralized, organized around the party’s presidential candidate and his campaign organization, whereas the other is more decentralized, organized partly around the national party organization but also a number of important outside allies, with less involvement of the candidate’s formal campaign organization.

Interestingly, we have seen a similar confrontation before, between two very different field operations—in 2004. Back then, it was also the incumbent, the Republican George W. Bush, who fielded a relatively centralized ground operation fueled mostly by volunteers, whereas the challenger, the Democratic John Kerry, relied on a wider coalition build in large part outside his formal campaign or even the auspices of the Democratic Party and partly reliant on paid canvassers. In retrospect, the relatively centralized apparatus spearheaded in 2004 by Bush’s two key political operatives  Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman is widely seen as having been more effective than the more sprawling coalition that Michael Whouley at the Democratic National Committee and Steve Rosenthal at the temporary outside campaign organization (pre-super PAC) “America Coming Together” strove to coordinate.

That difference is worth keeping in mind when the numbers start rolling in from campaigns keen to talk up their own ground game. As Election Day draws near, you will hear more and more talk about how many staffers each side has working in the field, how many offices they have in the swing states, how amazing their new technologies for targeting are, and how many millions of contacts they have made.

Experimental research documenting the impact of door knocks and phone calls proves that all this matters, and the monumental investment made in the ground war reflects that campaign operatives are increasingly focused on using personalized political communication as an integral part of their communications arsenal.

But ultimately, the political ground war is, like most other conflicts, not only about quantity—it is also about quality, about which campaign is better organized to get the most out of every dollar, every staffer, every volunteer hour invested in the ground war. That’s why we need to pay attention to every little detail, including how the two campaigns are organized and how they collaborate with their outside allies. Everything suggests that the Romney field operation is better than the McCain ground game in 2008, and benefits from more outside support. The question is whether it is good enough, faced with what appears to be a generously funded, battle-tested and supremely well-prepared Obama campaign.

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.



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