In a 21st century world filled with modern technological marvels that spread information far and wide instantaneously, a campaign’s physical ground game is still the surest way for a candidate to win at the ballot box.
During the 2016 primaries, many of the candidates, including Sanders, Trump, and to a degree even Clinton, were forced to accept that their huge rallies and high-tech deliveries were not connecting with the voters in a way that got them to the polls.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz used almost exclusively the traditional campaigning techniques of television ads, mailers, phone calls, and door-to-door messaging — and outlasted most of the better-funded competition.
The campaigns, learning as they went, started to really see that a blend of ground game and technology were key to winning over voters.
But really, how important is the ground game in politics?
A recent academic journal examined, post mortem, the 2012 election between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
These researchers found two key elements in a county-by-county analysis, based on the locations of field offices — that a physical presence did in fact matter, but that the campaign also had to ‘outperform’ the other side’s efforts when challenged in a geographical area.
In a political landscape where battleground states determine the election, this becomes a key element of victory — a physical presence will give the campaign a boost where uncontested and where both campaigns are actively campaigning, it’s the vigor and quality of the campaigning that ultimately wins over voters.
This replicates scholarly literature from post mortem analyses of the 2004 and 2008 elections.
There is evidence that Obama organizers had an understanding of these previous studies, opening an unprecedented total of 786 field offices in 449 counties. The Romney campaign, though warned by several analysts, only copied the field office dispersal of McCain’s 2008 campaign, with 284 field offices in 218 counties.
And the effects of this lop-sided advantage in ground games were overwhelming. At the county level, Romney was simply outperformed by the better ground game of the Obama camp.
In 2016, Donald Trump has dominated the airwaves and technology-driven campaigning. Estimates of his ‘free advertising’ throughout the campaign, mostly reporting on his antics, are in the billions of dollars.
He has taken Republican jet setting to a new level, holding rallies with crowds so large that even rock stars would be envious.
While the parties have seemingly unlimited money, this is where independent campaigns can dig-in and win.
But his ground game is still weak, non-existent in several key battleground states — including the recent closure of his Virginia operations.
When removing all the bluster, if Trump winds up losing, it will be from ignoring the overwhelming evidence that the traditional ground game is the single most important part of the campaigning process.
And why shouldn’t it be?
140-character tweets can only confirm what we already feel — confirmation bias at its worst — but actual phone calls or visits from a live person, able to discuss the issues with anyone willing to talk — that’s the kind of campaigning that adds a personal touch.
We go to political rallies because we already support the candidate — if a scientific poll was taken it would almost certainly show a very small percentage of undecided voters at Clinton or Trump rallies. Rallies create energy in the base — but that energy has to be put to use.
We live in a highly technologically driven web of information, but campaigns are learning, many the hard way, that it’s still person-to-person contact that motivates us to act politically.
Independents, as well, must learn from these studies. Person-to-person ground games are essential — motivating others to put their energy into contacting others about your message will do more than millions of dollars worth of television ads.
While the parties have seemingly unlimited money, this is where independent campaigns can dig-in and win, because this type of campaigning is the cheapest there is — often operated wholly by volunteers.
This is going to be a tough mind-set to change for many independent candidates, but it’s the very essence of why independents need a real grass-roots movement to capitalize at the ballot box.
And in the end, this is really what politics ‘should’ be about. Neighbors talking to neighbors about the issues that are important to them — creating the ultimate, unbeatable form of ground game that can propel independents to victory across the political map.
Photo Source: AP