What is this ground game and why is it so important in election campaigns?
The ground game refers to the ‘on the ground’ operations of political campaigns that do the work in the community to get a campaign message out and, critically, to get out the vote in the run-up to election day. Typical ground game operations consist of campaign teams with field directors, canvassers, volunteers, and also an amount of sophisticated databases and software systems designed to maximize the voter turnout for a candidate.
The quality of the campaign’s data on voters, ie, how many data points do they have on voters, what is the voter’s voting history, etc is the first thing that is required of a ground game campaign.
What is done with that data?
Usually, it is input into a campaign management system like VAN, i360 or Ecanvasser in order to sort and segment voters into turfs. These turfs are then assigned out to canvassers and volunteers to make sure every voter’s door is knocked on. The door knocking interaction is designed to convince the voter of the candidate’s supremacy as a candidate, to obtain a pledge to vote and to garner any further support from that person in the form of a donation, volunteering or the placing of a lawn sign outside their house. What is so fascinating about this year’s presidential campaign is the diametrically opposed attitudes taken by the candidates to ground game operations.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign team have run a textbook ground game campaign. They have the most sophisticated database on Democratic voters in the form of NGP Van, they have a huge volunteer and campaign network that spans the country and they have access to quality software tools to ensure data collected is all captured efficiently. What remains to be seen is exactly how good that operation will be at turning out the vote on election day, though few would bet against them.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has largely ignored the common wisdom that you need a huge ground game operation in order to have any chance of success in a presidential election. They, only recently, started using NationBuilder to manage their voter database and have been using a canvassing app called Advantage to get their volunteers out door knocking. In terms of standing army of staff, they are massively outnumbered by the Clinton campaign and they will not be able to match that Clinton GOTV effort even if they punch above their weight. The problem for Trump has been that he really only knew he would get the party endorsement quite late in the campaign (mid-Summer) and he has never been able to catch up with the Democrats machine. Trump has also been running an outsiders campaign and relying on his media presence to drive a ‘message campaign’ rather than relying on a ground game. His campaign team realize that it is too late to remedy the campaign shortcomings but are making a credible effort to do face-to-face engagement in the final weeks of the election.
The main takeaway from the 2016 season, from where we are now at the end of October, is that ground game operations are still hugely important and will continue to be an essential part of the campaign playbook, particularly as the technology meets the needs of field directors. However, what the Democrats have shown is that ground game and voter databases are a living thing and need to be crafted over time. This means when you get to the business end of an election your campaign team are not flailing in a voter database that is incomplete or does not cover the points that you need it to.
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