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.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of the 2014 Doris Graber Award, Political Communication Section of the American Political Science Association
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.
"Although running for office by knocking on doors may seem quant and old-fashioned, this book asserts the continued importance of personal campaign contact despite the existence of mass media and social networking. Based on extensive participant observation in two competitive Democratic House races, Nielsen not only provides very extensive personal stories from the campaign trail but also discovers interesting patters and attempts to link them to social science theory."—Choice
"The beauty of Nielsen's book is that he takes you inside the ground wars, into the mundane world of the political junkies and hangers-on who want to be close to the main action, even if the action involves a county election."—William D. Crano, PsycCritiques
"If the medium is the message, Nielsen shows that a key medium in campaigns is person-to-person communication. His sharp analysis and careful ethnographic storytelling reveal both the high level strategic role and the human experience of personalized political communication in contemporary elections."—W. Lance Bennett, University of Washington
"Having embedded himself with the grunts in the political trenches of two ordinary congressional elections, Nielsen demonstrates how elections involve the selling of democracy to an often reluctant or uninterested public. Ground Wars is a sterling example of political ethnography."—Herbert J. Gans, former president of the American Sociological Association
"Nielsen provides a trenchant and thought-provoking account of what campaigns look like at ground level. His ethnography offers a rare glimpse into what canvassing and phone banking mean to those who try to reach vast numbers of voters in the run-up to Election Day. This book is a welcome companion to more abstract, quantitative studies of campaigns and elections."—Donald P. Green, Columbia University
"Nielsen presents a very compelling analysis of an often-neglected aspect of modern electoral campaigns. He challenges the idea that political communication must be tightly controlled and scripted, correctly arguing that personalized, labor-intensive communication prone to individual inflection and enthusiasm represents American democracy in action. Ground Wars is an important and timely book."—Dennis W. Johnson, author of No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants Are Reshaping American Democracy
"This is an excellent book that offers unique analysis and insights into an emerging key dimension of electoral campaigning: personalized political communication—that is, communication to voters in person either at the door or on the phone. This book contributes to political science in novel and decisive ways. Ground Wars is a pleasure to read."—Florence Faucher-King, Sciences Po, Paris