Close Elections are Won or Lost at the Door

An election wrap-up by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

In the final weeks of the election, both campaigns and their allies have been hard at work in every competitive state, knocking on doors and calling voters at home. The “ground wars”, the parts of the campaigns that are waged door knock by door knock and phone call by phone call rather than by television advertisement, direct mail pieces, or online communications, only really emerge from the shadows just before Election Day, though they have in reality been meticulously planned long in advance, waged for months on end, and are based technical and organizational infrastructures built over the years by both major national parties and certain outside groups.

Journalists and scholars sometime talk and write about canvassing and the like as if this constituted some sort of old-fashioned “grassroots politics”, a left-over from a romantic past, but in reality volunteers knocking on doors are working side-by-side with paid part-time workers and full-time campaign staffers, and are guided by sophisticated data analysis done by specialized consultants working at their computers far away from the sound and fury on the streets of Youngstown, Ohio or the quiet determination of those trying to get out the vote in the suburbs of Arlington County, Virginia.

We know who won, but nobody but the campaigns themselves really knows how well they’ve done on the ground this time around. The Obama campaign and its allies have certainly repeatedly insisted they have an edge, and have a result to show for it. They also had the time, the experience, and the resources to make sure that they won the ground war, just as the Bush re-election team in 2004 took advantage of their head-start to outmaneuver the Democrats in several swing states. But the Romney campaign has also been talking a good (ground) game, and there is no reason to doubt that they have at the very least been considerably better prepared to fight for every last vote than the McCain campaign was in 2008. Ultimately, it may have been the Republican Party and the candidate Mitt Romney who lost the election more than it was the Romney campaign and its outside allies.

What do we know about the two ground war campaigns at this point?

In terms of reach, a Pew Research Center survey released just before the election showed that neither side had a clear advantage. In the swing states, a massive 66% of all voters report they have been contacted in person by supporters of one or both candidates. (The figure is 44% at the national level, higher than the final figure in both 2004 and 2008, and this is before the final get-out-the-vote push.) According to this data, the two campaigns have reached about the same number of people, and the overall figure will almost certainly be a record high when the dust has settled.

In terms of resources, it seems clear that the Obama campaign and its allies have invested more in field organizing that the Romney campaign and its allies. The Atlantic reports that the President has had more than 800 field offices across the country, more than twice as many as the Republicans have (the RNC runs most of Romney’s field campaign for him, in part for complicated campaign finance reasons). Labor unions and other progressive interest groups have thrown additional millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into the fray, as have various conservative groups. (With some parts of Obama’s 2008 electoral base having lost some of their enthusiasm for him over the past four years and some traditionally Democratic constituencies generally turning out at lower rates than many Republican constituencies, it has also been even more important for him to turn out the vote.)

In terms of targeting, making sure that the door knocks and phone calls reach the right people, that the resources invested are effectively used, Republicans were for years clearly ahead of the Democratic party in terms of importing techniques from commercial marketing and building the databases and tools necessary to adopt them for political purposes. But from 2008 onwards with the consolidation of a variety of Democratic/progressive data services in first the company VAN (later VAN-NGP) and collaboration across the party and within the coalition of interest groups backing it, the President and his allies has build what by all accounts is a clear advantage in terms of targeting technology and expertise.

What is clear even before anyone has had time to pore over the election result or coax more honest accounts of what happened out of the people involved is that the two campaigns and their allies have both prioritized field as an absolutely essential part of their overall strategy, that they have invested tens (and probably even hundreds) of millions of dollars in it, dedicated thousands of staffers to it, mobilized countless volunteers to help with it, and utilized both new and old technologies to guide the work—and that they have done it in different ways, encountering different challenges along the way, and with different effects. Social scientists have much further work to do to really understand how the process works and what it means, for electoral outcomes, and for democratic processes.

All we know for sure is that it matters—all the support in the world is not worth a thing if people do not come out to vote. Obama was the clear favorite going in to Election Day, ahead in the polls in most swing states—but such leads have eroded before in the face of an effective and determined last-minute campaign effort (George W. Bush was ahead of Al Gore by about two points in 2000 but lost ground to the massive field effort of labor unions and others supporting the Democratic nominee, resulting in the famously close result). Making sure supporters actually come out requires sophisticated planning and careful organization, hard work from thousands of field staffers, and millions of hours spent canvassing and phone banking by volunteers and people working for modest pay. If the political winds are blowing strongly in one direction or another, all this work can be in vain. But in competitive races—for President, but for every other office too—every little counts, and close elections can be won or lost at the door.


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.


  1. Jill R. Hughes says:

    Do you know who spent the most on the campaign? Living in Ohio, I felt that Romney outspent Obama by about two to one.