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It is settled, then: The ground game is important, if not paramount, to the outcome of an election. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen writes as much in “Ground Wars,” touting face-to-face advocacy as a “considerable and measurable” influencer of voting behavior (Nielsen 21).

The parties have noticed. Republicans earned credit for championing “micro-targeting” specific voting groups, which Democrats adopted and enhanced — with almost unparalleled accuracy and efficacy — in time to buoy Barack Obama’s election and re-election. The Economist wrote in October of the Republicans’ efforts to regain their mobilizing supremacy: The party had, in Georgia, appropriated the Obama campaign’s position of a full-time data director, as well as the mantra of “trying to expand the turnout universe” through get-out-the vote practices. Volunteers placed 5,000 calls every week to voters, each one of them emanating from all 17 of the party’s “Victory Centers” — or, in less celebratory and more political science-oriented vernacular, field offices, the nerve centers of mass mobilization.

While Nielsen speaks glowingly of the indispensable role of the ground game, he doesn’t quantify its value. That’s where the University of Pennsylvania’s Joshua P. Darr and Matthew S. Levendusky enter the fray, applying data to Nielsen’s theories in “Relying on the Ground Game: The Placement and Effect of Campaign Field Offices.” Darr and Levendusky wonder whether a field office, while noble in principle, can make an appreciable difference in an election.

Yes, the numbers say: They can, and they do.

Field offices netted Obama 275,000 additional votes in 2008, Darr and Levendusky found, while also playing an irreplaceable role in turning North Carolina blue by a paper-thin margin, winning Indiana — a Republican stronghold — and substantially blunting defeats in Missouri and Montana (Darr and Levendusky 540-541). It cost the Obama campaign $13,585,000 to land those votes, or about $49.50 per voter, Darr and Levendusky estimated.

But field offices don’t buy elections. That’s far too simplistic, Darr and Levendusky write. The ground game represents more than vote tabulations, more than a year’s favorable or unfavorable results.

Darr and Levendusky agree with Nielsen that the ground game covers a longer arc than one election cycle: It often serves as a seed to future growth, a foundation laid — sometimes conspicuously, sometimes not — that can portend future success. In 2008, the Obama campaign opened offices in Utah, a foregone-conclusion win for Republicans in the general election. The campaign wasn’t concerned about Obama’s fate, however: They wanted to boost Democrats in other statewide races. Distribute the party Kool Aid, they surmised, and perhaps Utah’s Republican tilt would lean closer to the middle.

It didn’t: John McCain won by nearly 28 percentage points. Gov. Jon Huntsman, the incumbent, won his race by 58 percentage points. Democrats won only one of three House races, absorbing drubbings of 35 and 37 percentage points. And 2012 wasn’t any kinder: Democrats got disemboweled in the presidential, gubernatorial, Senate and House races, save for one district. Yet with field offices, there is a measure of hope — however infinitesimal it might seem in the present — that a party can erode another party’s bastion. It is, in this regard, worth the time, and the resources, and the fight.

Because elections are not to be bought, but rather to be massaged and coaxed until they turn toward a party. The process is as glacial as it is logical: Darr and Levendusky found that the McCain and Obama campaigns situated more field offices within “core counties” — boasting a profusion of supporters — than up-in-the-air counties. The emphasis, Darr and Levendusky write, remains on the galvanizing force of mobilization, of energizing ardent supporters and having their loyalty spread through osmosis than attempting the rather difficult task of persuading swing voters (532). It is far easier to motivate than convince. And loyal counties are far more likely to have preexisting networks of volunteers, providing campaigns with a ready-to-go mobilization apparatus.

And where do these mechanisms take hold? Mostly in battleground states, understandably. But Darr and Levendusky revealed that the 2012 presidential campaigns placed a quarter of field offices in non-battleground states (534). The reasons behind this placement appear inconclusive, Darr and Levendusky write, but possibilities requiring further research include offering support to non-presidential candidates in a given state, building a base for the future or feeling skittish about defending an ostensibly “safe” electoral state (534). The reasoning belies the impact of a field office: Offices prove twice as effective in buoying turnout in battleground states than non-swing states, Darr and Levendusky assert (539).

And turnout isn’t limited to tightly contested states. Using available Democratic Party data from the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections (the Republican Party doesn’t have comparable statistics), Darr and Levendusky found that field offices, on average, boosted turnout and Democratic support (538). Field offices accounted for a 0.4-percent bump in turnout and a 1.04-percent rise in the performance of Democratic candidates within office-provided counties. There’s empirical value, then, in galvanizing the base.

The numbers appear small, if not insignificant. But a 0.5 percent shift in counties of swing states could have wrested victory from George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Darr and Levendusky write. It is possible, they acknowledge, that John Kerry would have won Ohio in ’04 — and, by extension, the election — if his campaign hadn’t relented on mobilizing efforts in the Buckeye State (539).

Therein lies the paradox of the field office, confined by scope but unrestrained by electoral impact. Offices don’t win elections, Darr and Levendusky posit — rather, they can make a difference in key states, thereby making the difference in a close race (541). That’s the measure of a field office, often an invaluable spur or calculated investment on potential future earnings. And, sometimes, the difference between flip-flops and cowboy boots.

“Considerable and measurable,” indeed.

***

Sources:

“Expanding the universe: The ground game”: The Economist, Oct. 11, 2014.

Joshua P. Darr and Matthew S. Levendusky. “Relying on the Ground Game: The Placement and Effect of Campaign Field Offices.” American Politics Research: 2014, Vol. 42(3), 529-548.

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