When you follow the news, elections can seem like distant affairs, the exclusive province of candidates, their consultants, and the journalists who cover them. But for those who want to do more than cast their vote, there is another side to politics -- a side that receives little media attention but a side that gives you the opportunity to make a difference.
The election coverage tends to concentrate on what political operatives sometimes call the "air war", the battle fought largely via news media, advertisements, and increasing online sites. (Thousands of stories have dealt with the Oct. 4 debate, though we know that presidential debates rarely matter.) But underneath the cover of spin, 30-second television spots, and social media strategies directed by a few dozen experienced political professionals, thousands of more junior campaign staffers work alongside literally millions of ordinary Americans in what politicos call the "ground war," reaching out to voters one at a time, knocking on doors, calling people at home. This unglamorous side of politics is covered sparingly by journalists, which is a shame, because it offers everyone who wants to a chance to make a difference in November.
Most of us cannot do more than make a donation when it comes to the capital-intensive "air war", but the "ground war" is labor-intensive. There, campaigns need all the help they can get. Go to the website of any candidate involved a competitive election, and you will be offered an opportunity to volunteer. If you click a few times more, you can often make phone calls on their behalf from the comfort of your own home. Visit one of their campaign offices, and you will be asked to go and knock on the doors of undecided voters or people who may stay home on Election Day.
Why do campaigns want your time? They didn't always. The current emphasis on volunteer involvement stands in stark contrast to the situation in the 1990s, where some campaigns allegedly turned away would-be volunteers, because they do not know what to do with them. Though the news coverage does not always reflect it, something has subtly shifted in how campaigns are waged in America, something that means that campaigns today have a role for anyone who wants to make a difference.
That change is the resurgence of the "ground war." Until the 1990s, canvassing and phone banking were on the wane, seen as old-fashioned strategies superseded by the rise of television and direct mail. But from the early 2000s onward -- well before the 2008 Barack Obama campaign demonstrated the power of volunteers -- campaign professionals grew increasingly interested in getting more people involved and in talking to voters in a more personalized fashion. According to National Election Studies surveys, the percentage of Americans who were contacted in person by either major party hovered around 25 for most of the post-war period. From 2000 onwards, the figure has grown steadily, to over 40 percent -- something like one hundred million people -- in both 2004 and 2008.
There are four main reasons why campaigns increasingly emphasize the "ground war" and provide people a chance to get actively involved in electoral politics. First, audience fragmentation and changing patterns of news consumption means that traditional "air war" strategies are not as effective as they once were. Second, increased political polarization means that fewer people are genuine swing voters and it is harder to persuade people to vote differently. Third, because turnout remains low in the U.S., there is a lot to be gained from mobilizing one's own supporters. Fourth, the development of new database technologies and the availability of detailed individual-level data on most voters means that campaigns can target their contacts with much greater precision. Campaigns aren't interested in volunteers as such, they are interested in winning. But changes in the media landscape and the political environment mean that they increasingly need volunteers to win. Even though the people who canvass and man the phone banks for campaigns often labor in obscurity, their work matters.
Knocking on doors or making calls for a candidate is everyone's chance to be part of American democracy in action. It is hard work, sometimes tedious, occasionally unpleasant -- and it matters. A growing body of social science research substantiates the idea that canvassing and phone banking are amongst the most effective ways of turning people out to vote. That is why, in a closely fought contest like the presidential election ahead, and in hundreds of other competitive races across the country, the final difference between victory and defeat can lie in the strength and dedication of a candidate's volunteers, of the intensity of the ground war waged to bring out the vote. Therein lies an opportunity for all those who want to make a difference, however small, in November.