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Kevin Sweeny: Ground game — do or die

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In the election of 1840, Abraham Lincoln served as a Whig presidential elector in Illinois. In his push to elect the “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” ticket, he sent a ten-point edict to all committee members containing a field plan of operations.

Much has changed in the landscape of political campaigns since 1840, but the importance of a well-organized, strong field operation has never waned. It is a mainstay in the campaigning ecosystem and part of a successful formula to forge a path to victory and campaigns which ignore its impact, do so at their own candidate’s peril.

A generation ago, many political scientists were signaling the death of the ground game. TV, mail and even the Internet would render such campaign expenditures obsolete. However, over the last few election cycles, the opposite has proved true.

Moreover, deeply established ground games have had a tremendous impact in municipal and state elections, local referendums and state ballot initiatives, to federal elections. Recent cycles have confirmed staffing a field operations campaign with a well-trained and competent workforce to help a candidate interact voters still matters.

From getting petitions signed, voters registered, identifying early voters, canvassing door to door, and staffing the polls on Election Day, field campaigns still matter. Their greatest impact is at the local and state levels. Despite this, field operation’s budgets pale in comparison to advertisements.

However, in-person mobilization appears to be one of the more effective expenditures a campaign can make with limited resources, increasing voter turnout by as much as 10 percent according to a recent study.

Contemporary political campaigns utilize a broad set of tools and methods for finding and contacting voters, more than at any point in electoral history.

Much has been written about the roles of technology, big data and social media in recent campaigns. However, at the same time, there has been a corresponding rise in old-fashioned campaign techniques, particularly establishing a competent ground game. Field offices, typically but not always placed in strategic locations around a district or state help to transform basic campaign information into real voter contacts.

Field offices often serve as the first and last point of contact between a political campaign and the electorate. A campaign’s headquarters gathers important and timely information on voters and in turn relays such information to the field manager. They, in turn, instruct their field workers to pinpoint a calculated message to a structured group of voters.

Typically, the most effective of these field workers are well-trained volunteers who live locally.

While campaigns rely on a certain percentage of outside paid field workers, by far these local volunteers are most successful in distributing campaign information. Campaign volunteers are typically true believers in a cause, person or organization. They usually act purely on the belief they are making their community a better place. While obviously paid workers are vital to a campaign, no one was ever paid to start a real revolution.

A first-rate example of the impact of a competent ground game is best illustrated by recent presidential elections and field work impact. Because the Democratic Party keeps better field data than the Republican Party, I will use them as an example.

In a recent experiment, the 2012 presidential election was replicated with all things being equal. However, in this replication, Obama had no real field offices for volunteers. The results showed Obama would have lost 248,000 votes nationwide.

A further dive into these numbers points to Obama losing Florida and therefore the presidency.

Continued runs by political scientists Seth Masket, Josh Darr and Matthew Levendusky show running the same field simulations in the 2008 election gave Obama his victory in North Carolina, Florida and Indiana. Recent claims of Obama being able to win the presidency without a ground game simply do not hold water.

After a recent election, a British Election Study showed one-on-one field contact made all the difference in local campaigns, by as much as 14 percent. Furthermore, a simple face-to-face meeting at the door by a campaign or candidate yielded a 97 percent likelihood of the voter casting their ballot for those who made contact with them.

Moreover, the study showed it is not just a one-time face-to-face contact which matters, the contact must be constant. Parties lost upward of 16 percent of those who were only approached at the door once and never followed up on. Suffice to say, field offices increase turnout and vote share for the candidates and organizations who take the time to adequately fund and staff them.

Lastly, and one of my personal favorite incentives of producing a solid ground game on top of being able to ascertain if your campaign’s message is resonating among the electorate is it creates a legion of loyal volunteers who are prepared to carry on the legacy of the candidate or party.

This legacy of political skill can prove to be invaluable not only to the volunteer but to the organization and the electorate as a whole. Well trained and passionate volunteers evolve into the next generation of campaign managers, consultants and operatives. They understand not only the complexities associated with running a political campaign, but they also make meaningful connections with the governing, consultant and economic classes.

Moreover, they gain a broader understanding of the issues faced by the electorate and the campaign they represent. Some will even eventually step into the fray and become candidates themselves.

Two examples of this evolving legacy quickly come to mind. The first is the losing “YES!” campaign for Scottish independence which morphed its field operation into a supportive role for the SNP (Scottish National Party). In return, the field campaigns for “YES!” handed the SNP the most seats in their party’s history and now the SNP is the outright ruling party in Holyrood.

Another example much closer to home is Jeb Bush’s grassroots push on education issues dating as far back as his first unsuccessful run for Governor in 1994. The political initiatives are still pushed by a network of grassroots leaders and paid lobbyists to this day.

While field operations began to decrease and wane many election cycles ago, the ground game with its high return on investment and increased, voter turnout will start again to play an increasingly important role in campaigns and in shaping the political landscape.

The use of an effective ground game will continue to pay dividends to organizations, legislative initiatives and candidates who take the long view toward success. The philosopher and essayist George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In the case of campaigns, it’s not so much a failure to remember, as much as it is their hubris in ignoring it: the ground game is the key to the path to victory.


Kevin Sweeny is Operations Director for the Florida Justice Association.

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