Friday, February 10, 2012

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen's "Ground Wars"

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, and reported the following:
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you”—that was my introduction to the page 99 test, versions of which all book lovers are familiar with. Is it accurate for Ground Wars, my new book?

The question of quality is not for me to decide, but as it happens, page 99 does contain one of my central arguments about how we best think about how American campaigns operate on the ground, as they canvass voters door-by-door and over the phone and engage in what I call “personalized political communication”—the use of people as media for political communication.

Let me quote from the page:
We need to distinguish analytically between (1) the hierarchical campaign organization that staffers populate, (2) the wider network of allies involved in the assemblage, and (3) the ambiguous relations that exist at the interface between the staffers and the volunteers and part-timers who are mobilized to serve as media for personalized political communication. Analysis of these three facets shows how campaigns operate at numerous fractious intersections: between old hierarchical forms of campaign organizing and campaign practices premised on new technologically assisted forms of popular involvement; between temporary entities and permanent players; between national and local organizations; and between self-avowed professional operatives with a vocational interest in politics and the civically motivated volunteers and financially motivated part-timers with whom they work. Field campaigns in competitive districts are neither the kind of “grassroots politics” that some romantics long for nor the thoroughly professionalized operations that some other parts of politics are.
What is at stake in this argument? Think about it this way: news coverage will frequently talk about for example “the Romney campaign” doing this or that. Usually, they are referring to action by the campaign organization, the hierarchically organized group of people who work full time for the candidate in question. We associate such campaign organizations with what we might call the “logic of efficacy,” and see them as more or less effective instruments for a particular goal—winning the election.

As has been very clear throughout the Republican primary, however, these formal campaign organizations do not work alone. Even well funded ones are too small and don’t have all the resources and manpower they need to compete effectively. Hence, they work in concert with a network of allies that aren’t part of the formal campaign organization but are technically and legally separate entities (like Super PACs) that are integral to how the candidate campaign pursues its goal. In terms of ground war activities, such allies might include national party organizations providing data services, state and local party organizations lending staffers and local knowledge, and allied interests groups mobilizing volunteers.

This leads us to the much larger number of people that are sometimes implicitly included, sometimes implicitly excluded, when we talk about for example “the Romney campaign”—volunteers most obviously, but also part-timer workers (hired to, for example, canvass voters). Are these people part of the campaign? They are and they aren’t—they are not part of the formal campaign organization. But they are integral to how the campaign in a larger sense—what I call the “campaign assemblage”—becomes capable of contacting tens of thousands, and in some cases ultimately millions, of people, in person, at the door or over the phone.

So when we think about “the Romney campaign” we should think not only about the staffers who work for the formal organization “Romney for President, Inc” (80 Hayden Lexington, MA 02421), but also about the larger campaign assemblage that has formed around Romney’s candidacy, an assemblage that involves not only full-time staffers, but also a network of allies and numerous volunteers and part-time workers. It is only together that they can wage an effective ground war for votes.
Learn more about the book and author at Rasmus Kleis Nielsen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue