Knock, knock.

“Hi, I’m Hope.  I’m a volunteer with the Democratic Party.  I just wanted to talk to you about the election this fall.  Are you planning on voting?”

This sequence may sound familiar, especially so soon after the recent presidential election.  It resembles the typical script of a canvasser attempting to mobilize voters, hopefully those who will vote for their candidate. These ground campaigns can be uncomfortable, redundant, and unwanted by the voter, but are proven to be the most effective technique to mobilize voters.

Campaigns use phone calls, direct mail, field canvassing, social media, and traditional media, among other methods, to sway undecided citizens and people registered to their party to vote.  Television is a common outlet in our culture and social media is on the rise, however, studies have shown that nothing beats the old-school personal interaction that comes from field campaigns and the interactions they create.  These interactions include rejection, modification, and acceptance of the canvasser and their message.  While the Democratic Party has effectively used ground campaigns to win national elections, with their extensive voter database and door-to-door canvassing, the Republican Party may consider extending their ground campaigns to be more successful in future elections.

In his book “The Victory Lab,” Sasha Issenberg describes an experiment done in 1998 by political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green.  Their experiment compared phone calls, field campaigns, and direct mailings to determine which method was the most effective at mobilizing the electorate.  Green and Gerber sent canvassers, mail, and scripted phone calls to a random selection of houses in New Haven, Connecticut with separate messages about voting as “a civic duty,” “community solidarity,” and necessary because of the “prospect of a close election.”  They also maintained a control group with no contact.  After the election, Gerber and Green concluded that phone calls did not mobilize voters and direct mail slightly increased the number of voters who came out; however, voters visited by the canvassers voted significantly more than the control sample that was not contacted at all.  Their experiment showed that ground campaigns and personal contact are important methods for a candidate to get more votes amidst the constant slew of electronic and social media and advertisements  (Issenberg 2012).

In Rasmus Nielsen’s book, “Ground Wars,” he defines the interactions between the canvasser and the voter on the ground and on the phone, and the reactions with which voters respond.  Nielsen identifies three responses that respondents generally give:  rejection, modification, and acceptance.

Rejection occurs when no personal interaction or conversation occurs between the canvasser and the voter.  In many cases, the voter does not want to talk to the canvasser and shuts them out, sometimes literally, sometimes with an excuse.  Caller ID makes rejection easier nowadays because voters can decide to not answer the phone if they do not recognize the number.  Nielsen depicts modification as a better result than rejection, but still not the preferred response.

ground campaigns

Modification of an interaction occurs when a voter’s response causes the canvasser to modify their script or talking points and take the voter’s agenda instead.  People can modify the interaction in good and bad ways.  They may tell the canvasser that they already know who they are voting for and don’t need the full spiel.  They may want the field campaigner to make the interaction quick.  They may pretend that they are not even registered to vote.  Whenever the canvasser is required to make the conversation brief, they cannot gain responses to all of their questions and must choose which ones they believe to be most important.  This causes discrepancies in the information bank.  In a modified interaction, the canvasser is able to accomplish more than they can with a rejected response; however, they ultimately strive for acceptance and a successful, complete interaction in which the voter accepts the canvasser’s quest and answers their questions without attempting to modify the original script too much (Nielsen 2012).

Ground campaigns are immensely important to elections; they can impact who comes out to vote on Election Day, and therefore, the overall results of the election.  The three voter responses Nielsen describes influence the interactions between the canvasser and the voter.  If ground campaigns can gather more information about people, their areas, their lifestyles, and their voting habits, they can create a more accurate campaign and target population.  They determine which prospective voters to target and get out the vote.

Obama’s past two campaigns extensively used ground campaigns and added information to their already vast voter database system.  With the Democratic Party’s victory in the past two national elections, partially due to ground campaigns, the question that remains is whether Republicans will employ the ground campaign more in the future.  As the out-party, they have no incentive not to, especially since field campaigns have proven to be effective, but will they break from their traditional political consultants and attempt more methods to “get out the vote” on the ground?  We’ll find out in 2016.


Issenburg, S. (2012). The Victory Lab. New York: Random House, Inc.

Nielsen, R.  (2012).  Ground Wars.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.


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