Date: February 21, 2012.
Time: 5.15–6.30 p.m.
Location: Founders West FW101.
Ground Wars: Personalized Political Communication in American Campaigns
American elections 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 to sway the undecided and turn out the base. Faced with a changing communication environment, characterized by audience fragmentation, an increasingly strained attention economy, and a certain desensitization to traditional mass-mediated appeals, campaigns have increasingly turned to “personalized political communication”—the use of people as media for political communication.
Today, both candidate campaigns, the two major parties, and interest groups spend millions of dollars on new technologies for targeting voters and combine them with increasingly intense old-fashioned efforts to mobilize and organize volunteers and paid part-timers, all to be able to contact millions of people at home—43% percent of all voters reported being contacted in person in 2008, and we will see equally intense ground war operations in the 2012 electoral cycle.
Drawing on extensive ethnographic research in two congressional districts in 2008, I will show how American campaigns employ personalized political communication to engage with the electorate. I will argue that the resurgence of labor-intensive and seemingly old-fashioned campaign techniques like canvassing gives campaigns a renewed incentive to try to mobilize people to take part in campaigns. This stimulates increased levels of political participation even as the orientation of personalized political communication towards marginal voters reinforces existing tendencies to cater primarily to the most polarized and/or lethargic elements of the electorate.
Dr 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.