The "Ground War" of Political Campaigns: Nonpaid Activities in U.S. State Legislative Races

Article excerpt

A national survey of candidates for state legislative offices examined the impact of nonpaid campaign activities on percentage of vote obtained, and assesses them in the contexts of different levels of funding, levels of competitiveness, and incumbency advantage. From a representative sample of 527 candidates, several insights emerge, first, while incumbency is a powerful force, a wide array of nonpaid campaign activities can substantially influence election outcome. Second, while some forms of free media coverage are quite risky, endorsements from community leaders and in newspaper editorials are consistently beneficial at this level. Finally, traditional campaigning, like door-to-door canvassing, is very much alive and well in state legislative races.

Political campaigns are essentially communication events in which candidates initiate numerous and varied messages to potential voters with the desired outcome of securing their votes. Many of these messages are delivered as paid advertisements in print and broadcast media. These paid political ads are the focus of a rather large body of scholarly research that examines various facets of the ads' effectiveness. Many other candidate-to-voter messages, however, have been less frequently the focus of empirical investigation. They are often called "nonpaid" messages, which refers to the fact that they are interpersonal communications or that the space or time in a particular mass medium is not directly purchased as it is in advertising. The so-called "nonpaid" communication tools, however, rarely are cost-free; their costs are more likely to be indirect (as in a fee to a public relations firm for obtaining news coverage).

Many of these activities require substantially less money than advertising and are utilized by candidates at all levels of campaigning. Notable among these are media events, like appearances of candidates on television or radio talk shows and general news coverage of a campaign; enlistment of credible spokespeople as endorsers of the candidate; and traditional grassroots tactics such as door-to-door canvassing. Some of these activities are initiated by the candidate and therefore largely within his or her control. Others, most notably coverage by reporters in newspapers or broadcast, are often initiated by the journalist and therefore not within control of the candidate or his or her campaign organization.

Regardless of their origin, however, these nonpaid campaign activities often seem to make the difference, especially in close races, between winning and losing. The more a candidate can initiate and exert influence over these nonadvertising activities, the greater the likelihood of a positive electoral outcome. Alluding to his party's recent successful get-out-the-vote (GOTV) grassroots activities during the 2002 election cycle, one Washington, D.C., consultant stated: "We Republicans have finally mastered what the Democrats have always done well in the trenches. We're now beating them at their own game."1

This study examines the influence of nonpaid campaign communication activities (whether initiated by the candidate or by someone, usually a journalist, external to the campaign organization) on election outcome through a survey of candidates in state legislative campaigns across the United States. The local level of a state legislative campaign was selected for two reasons. First, state legislative campaigns generally possess both lower budgets and heavier reliance on grassroots activities than do their congressional counterparts. Second, the U.S. campaign model is being increasingly exported to countries where media advertising is less available and less relied upon than in most campaigns in the United States.2 As such, the effectiveness of nonpaid communications in state legislative races in the United States may offer some parallel insights for campaigns in developing countries, where there is typically a heavier reliance on such grassroots activities. …