In 2008, Barack Obama changed the way that contemporary politicos view presidential elections. His unprecedented use of field organizing, supplemented by digital and new media technologies, took ritual campaign activities, like phone banking and canvassing, and modernized them in a way that proved overwhelmingly successful. Essentially, he turned the ground game – the battle-like campaigning that takes place interpersonally rather than through the airwaves of the mass media – into an institutionalized part of the campaign structure.
To explain how he did this, Obama’s campaign is best viewed through the lens of three contemporary scholars: Jeffrey Alexander, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Daniel Kreiss. Alexander, in The Performance of Politics, argues that Obama successfully mobilized people by becoming a collective representation of their values. As a result, these mobilized supporters helped convey Obama’s symbolism to new and unlikely voters throughout the 50 states. In Ground Wars, Nielsen argues that Obama’s ground game made effective use of personalized political communication, which requires candidates to use people as media, in a way that was reminiscent of Howard Dean. He also notes that Obama’s ground game apparatus was meant to transcend the 2008 campaign. Kreiss, in Taking Our Country Back, asserts that Howard Dean created the technological tools campaigns needed and ingrained them in the Democratic National Committee (DNC). In 2008, he argues, Obama used this same approach, implementing these tools effectively to provide the backstage infrastructure that he needed to supplement the performance aspect of the ground game.
This analysis of 2008 begs the question, though, “What came next?” Obviously, Obama won reelection in 2012. But how did the institutionalization that he worked hard to solidify transcend the 2008 campaign and transition into 2012? And what were Republicans – namely Mitt Romney – doing to counteract that?
Obama’s Take: Organizing for America
Critical to the reelection cause, Obama’s 2012 ground game actually started in 2008. Campaign staffers immediately got to work crunching numbers from the vast fieldwork done over the preceding months. They looked at the number of doors they knocked, the number of phones they called, and the number of voters they registered. They broke down the data by field organizer, then by volunteer (Balz). Ultimately, this helped the campaign understand which techniques worked and which targets responded most frequently, thereby preparing for 2012’s ground game.
From this point, the campaign was able to maintain its data, its work, and its institutional infrastructure through Organizing For America. This is something the aforementioned scholars, particularly Nielsen, praised the campaign for, although they couldn’t yet see how the infrastructure would transition to 2012 in practice. Now in hindsight, we can clearly see that the transition proved effective.
Jennifer O’Malley Dillon worked on the 2008 campaign and later became the executive director of the DNC. While there, she oversaw Organizing for America, putting her in a position to merge Obama’s ground game practices with the party infrastructure, much like Howard Dean did with his unprecedented use of technology when he became chairman of the DNC in 2005. In the 2012 campaign, Dillon became the deputy campaign director in charge of field operations (Balz). Similarly, Jeremy Bird served as the 2008 campaign’s South Carolina field manager. In the 2012 campaign, he was promoted to national field director (which is probably a product of the number-crunching that took place immediately following the 2008 election) (Balz). Bird now serves as the deputy director of Organizing for Action, the newest form of Organizing for America. This personnel continuity helped create an institutional memory that is often lacking in the cyclical and constantly changing environment of politics.
Certainly, it wasn’t just personnel continuity and a head start on research that made Obama’s ground game successful once again in 2012. It also had to do with the institutionalization of Organizing for America, a grassroots machine that can adapt to any campaign or issue over time. In 2008, Organizing for America was simply part of what Nielsen would call Obama’s campaign assemblage. It was an arm of the campaign that managed the widespread field organization. When Obama took office, Organizing for America became the work of the DNC (under Dillon), helping Democratic candidates through the 2010 mid-term elections. Then, during the 2012 election, Organizing for America became reincorporated into Obama for America to serve the campaign’s ground game once again. Following the election, Organizing for America became Organizing for Action, a tool for people to organize and mobilize around President Obama’s agenda. By charting this progression, it becomes clear that the Obama campaign has successfully created an institutional infrastructure to carry out effective ground games. It has been designed to transcend campaigns, leadership, and candidates, making it highly organized, highly methodical, and highly useful.
This institutionalization of the new ground game gave Obama a significant advantage in the 2012 election. The 2012 campaign boasted more than 800 field offices throughout the country and a well-prepared branding plan to unify and professionalize them. Through Organizing for America, Obama was able to take front-stage performance acts like door-to-door canvassing and carry them out in all 50 states thanks to a well-oiled machine backstage. As we’ll see, this presents a stark contrast to the disjointed and decentralized Republican performance on the ground.
Romney’s Take: Leave It to the RNC
The short story of Mitt Romney’s ground game is that it didn’t exist. Whereas Obama enlisted more than 800 field offices, Romney had just about 300 (Ball). In fact, by April 2012, Obama had spent more on salaries outside of Illinois (where his headquarters were) than Romney had spent on salaries total (Cohen).
The long story of Romney’s ground game is that while it did exist, it was not a part of his core campaign strategy. Romney left the ground game up to the Republican National Committee (RNC). The RNC operated these 300 field offices, and often split the real estate between Romney and several local candidates. In a sense, these were not Romney offices – they were Republican offices. Based on Nielsen’s assertion that the party is not the primary way in which voters communicate with candidates in modern elections, then, it would make sense that these offices would be far less effective than Obama’s well-branded and hierarchical offices.
But it wasn’t just the quantity or the affiliation of these offices that made them weak tools for organizing; it was also the quality. As Alexander explains in his book, Obama was able to create a fascination with his merchandise, where Obama for America posters became coveted memorabilia. Romney’s offices in 2012 seemed to lack merchandise in the first place. One reporter came across an office emblazoned with a sign that read, “We are out of Romney yard signs,” (Ball). There’s no evidence to suggest this was a result of their being in high demand, either. In Chapel Hill, local RNC volunteers had very few Romney deliverables to pass out – they were apparently told not to pass out stickers unless people were willing to put them on their cars specifically. Certainly, the university community is a typically liberal base of voters, but the lack of Romney merchandise represents the larger lack of commitment to the ground game.
Conclusions: 2012 and Beyond
From 2008 to 2012, the Obama campaign infrastructure successfully institutionalized an effective grassroots game by turning Organizing for America into a singular, transferrable and transcendent entity with an internal hierarchy and ongoing work. This makes it an invaluable tool for Democratic candidates and officials moving forward. The Republicans, on the other hand, stuck with what they know: a decentralized, non-interventionist approach bridging the gap between party and candidate (Cohen). Ultimately, 2012 furthered the argument that the ground game warrants attention, planning, and incorporation into the campaign infrastructure.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Ball, Molly. “Obama’s Edge: The Ground Game That Could Put Him Over the Top.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/obamas-edge-the-ground-game-that-could-put-him-over-the-top/264031/>.
Balz, Daniel J. Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Cohen, Micah. “The General Election Ground Game: A First Look.” FiveThirtyEight. New York Times, 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/the-general-election-ground-game-a-first-look/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0>.
Kreiss, Daniel. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton UP, 20