Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: Rasmus Kleis Nielsen - Ground Wars

The book Ground Wars focuses on a area of political communication that is largely ignore by academic study. As the subtitle states, the focus is on 'personalised political communication' or individuals as media. While much is written about the air war, the mass media campaign, advertising, television debates et cetera, we find that the ground war is seldom documented. Yet we can find evidence that, aside from the currency earned by a good incumbent, being contacted by the campaign can be crucial. The figure Nielsen references is the mobilisation of one in fourteen contacts, similar evidence can be found in work by Gerber & Green as well as myself in a micro-study of marginal seat campaigns in the UK.
The value of Nielsen's book is that it offers an in-depth account of the various players that participate. He describes any campaign unit as an assemblage, a tapestry of permanent and part-time staffers, volunteers and part-timers, all of whom draw together for the purpose of pursuing a goal. However, these goals may not always be identical. They may all want a Democratic victory, but some are there for the candidate, some for the party and some for the president. There may also be various competing forces working together but with their own objectives and motivations. Nielsen also charts how voters respond to be canvassed, by telephone or on the doorstep, or being 'knocked-up', encouraged to go out and vote, and the complex but often dubiously accurate walk sheets, voter lists and accompanying scripts that are employed. It is a rich story that questions the extent to which all political campaigning is professionalised but highlights how these personal interactions are a core part of the campaign experience for some voters in the US.
Of course the US is not alone in having a ground war. Nielsen hints at the fact that this is part of campaigning, and not just US campaigning, but there is no comparative aspect to the work itself. However, the parallels with campaigns I have experienced are many. In the UK local campaigning has perhaps even less of a professional edge, but the same characters appear (though there are few if any paid part-time canvassers on the whole). The same forces, also, are at work. Thus Nielsen's work offers much scope for future research agendas, both in tracking the evolution of these campaigns, how they work across different systems and what commonalities and differences appear across ground wars. For this reason, as well as shedding much light into a hidden aspect of campaigning, this book and the research it builds upon, is very important for the understanding of how both party staff and volunteers as well as voters, experience elections.
Nielsen's work is also useful for another reason. The appendix offers a personal and academic overview of the research method. The work is ethnographic in style, taking a participant observation approach. Nielsen details the difficulties in gaining trust, the challenges faced by trying to be removed while also being useful to have around, the misunderstanding of his work as the 'office anthropologist' and the array of challenges met through the course of his study. As such this offers both guidance and caution to any researcher embarking on similar work.
Overall it is, to those fascinated in campaigning, a gripping read. Well researched, insightful and full of wonderful snapshots drawn from observations made during the research. If you really want to understand campaigning, this is the book to read.