If you have been involved in grassroots electoral campaigning, reading Rasmus Kleis Nielsen’s study of the grassroots aspect of two US Democrat campaigns from the 2008 Congressional elections, Ground Wars, is likely to produce a mix of two responses.
First, there is the amusement at how much heavy weather political scientists can make of discovering what to those with direct experience has been obvious for years. Lots of theory and references to previous works in order to ‘reveal’ what people have been doing for years. But second, also, a recognition that sometimes applying that different perspective teases out new lessons and perspectives from what is familiar.
A good example of this is the account of how often Nielsen found that what campaigners actually did on the doorstep varied greatly from the scripts the campaign HQ had given them. They might leave HQ with scripts in hand carefully telling them what to say to voters, but actual encounters with voters rarely followed the script – even if they started with it, which was by no means certain. So far, so familiar to campaigners.But what Nielsen then adds is a useful perspective on how this issue of what frontline staff or volunteers say and how people at ‘the centre’ can influence it is a common problem across many different organisations, from those trying to get the most out of their sales staff to coffee chains trying to ensure staff are friendly to all customers. There is much that political campaigns can learn from the different approaches that others take to similar problems, such as thinking more about training on general skills (e.g. how best to handle an angry person) rather than trying to micromanage the words to be used. Ground Wars also includes some fascinating vignettes from canvassers bemoaning the lack of training and communication about what they are doing and why compared to their experiences working in the commercial sector, such as for fast food firms.
For the research, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen immersed himself in the two campaigns, taking part in local campaign activities and often having to fend off queries from fellow campaigners as to what he had found out or what others had told him: “I mostly tried to answer such questions with a combination of unobjectionable generalities and incomprehensible academic jargon”.
In telling this story Nielsen also highlights how grassroots campaigning, especially doorstep conversations with voters, is back on the rise in US politics after decades of decline. First with the Republicans and then with the Democrats rushing to catch up, the 21st century has seen a renewed emphasis on talking directly to carefully selected voters. It means that grassroots politics is both healthy – more direct personal contact is happening – and also can be dangerously insular – campaigns narrowing down who they want to talk to, concentrating on the key swing groups as they apply increasing datasets to predicting people’s likely voting preference and odds of voting at all.
It also means that Ground Wars gives one of the best brief histories I have read of the Democrat Party’s different attempts to revive its grassroots campaigning and to sort out its supporting IT infrastructure in the decade preceding the 2008 Obama campaign. Obama’s campaign rightly got much attention and credit for what it achieved, but it did not come out of nowhere or having nothing to build on.
Nielsen has the story of the failed attempt to outsource grassroots organising in 2004, the rise of micro-targeting (not quite so new as the quotes from 1892 show), the failure of the Demzilla database and more – including the subsequent rise of VAN (Voter Activation Network), successfully brought in to supply a new, modern database system. VAN’s role has since been echoed in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats brought it in to replace a previous one that never quite delivered the promised modernisation.
This all means the book is a good, enlightening read for those who are not familiar with how election campaigns actually operate on the ground, yet also has plenty of points to think about for those who are.