Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns

Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns


Political campaigns today are won or lost in the so-called ground war--the strategic deployment of teams of staffers, volunteers, and paid part-timers who work the phones and canvass block by block, house by house, voter by voter. Ground Wars provides an in-depth ethnographic portrait of two such campaigns, New Jersey Democrat Linda Stender's and that of Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, who both ran for Congress in 2008.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen examines how American political operatives use "personalized political communication" to engage with the electorate, and weighs the implications of ground war tactics for how we understand political campaigns and what it means to participate in them. He shows how ground wars are waged using resources well beyond those of a given candidate and their staff. These include allied interest groups and civic associations, party-provided technical infrastructures that utilize large databases with detailed individual-level information for targeting voters, and armies of dedicated volunteers and paid part-timers. Nielsen challenges the notion that political communication in America must be tightly scripted, controlled, and conducted by a select coterie of professionals. Yet he also quashes the romantic idea that canvassing is a purer form of grassroots politics. In today's political ground wars, Nielsen demonstrates, even the most ordinary-seeming volunteer knocking at your door is backed up by high-tech targeting technologies and party expertise.

Ground Wars reveals how personalized political communication is profoundly influencing electoral outcomes and transforming American democracy.


At 7:55 P.M. we stop calling, and the campaign office is suddenly quiet. Nobody seems to know what will happen next. People just sit in front of their phones. After a few minutes, somebody says quietly, “It's eight o'clock.” The polls are closing now. There is nothing more we can do.

People begin to get up; some start talking; a few grab snacks from the table in the volunteer room. Kesari, one of the field organizers, goes around hugging people. She has tears in her eyes as she says, again and again, “I can't believe it's over!" She is hoarse from exhaustion and from making hundreds of phone calls. Someone turns up the volume on the TV, but all the news is about the presidential election. Nobody seems to care. We want to know what will happen here, in New Jersey. We want to know if Linda Stender will be the next House Representative from the 7th district.

By now there are mostly staffers left in the office, along with a handful of volunteers who have stuck around until the end. The field director comes out from the back room and asks all the field organizers to go with him. They will be getting the returns from around the district and comparing them to their vote goals. Everybody else is told to go to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clark, where the “election night celebration” will be. (The staffers consider it hubris to call something a victory party.)

I drive with Philip, one of the volunteers. He says, “I can't remember the last time I made so many calls.” We have both been on the phones for a couple of hours straight. He came back to the office from his last canvass around 6:00 P.M., having knocked on doors for two hours after getting off work. Upon his return, he was put straight onto the phones. I have walked two shifts with different partners myself and have also made calls this evening. We are but a drop in an ocean. Hundreds of people have knocked on doors and made phone calls for Stender and the Democratic Party in this district, not only today, but every day for the last couple of months. Some of these people are campaign staffers, many volunteers, several hundreds have worked as paid part-timers, and more have been mobilized by allies in the labor movement and elsewhere.

Philip and I get to the hotel and make our way to the room booked for the campaign. About fifty people have already arrived, including five journalists and two camera crews. More people are filing in. The . . .

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