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«CHAPTER 1 Personalized Political Communication in American Campaigns Episode 1.1 Charlene is in her late thirties, African American, and looking for ...»

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Copyrighted Material


Personalized Political Communication

in American Campaigns

Episode 1.1

Charlene is in her late thirties, African American, and looking for a job. Her

home is in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a decaying, de-industrialized city with an

unemployment rate over 10 percent and about 20 percent of the population

living below the poverty line. Right now she is making ten dollars an hour

canvassing for the Connecticut Democrats’ coordinated campaign—and gets

a gas card every week too. “It helps pay the bills,” she says. She finished her Microsoft Office User Specialist class at Workforce, Inc., this afternoon, and since then we have been out walking door-to-door, talking to voters.

Charlene knocks on the door, holding her clipboard with the Jim Himes for Congress flyers and a map of the area in one hand and a PalmPilot with our script, walk sheet, and talking points in her other hand. I stand a couple of yards behind her, clutching my own clipboard and PDA (personal digital assistant), watching the house for any signs of life. We are about to leave when an elderly white woman opens the door. We know from our list that she is probably Anna Rizzo, a seventy-seven-year-old registered Democrat who lives here. She is our target because she is an infrequent voter. Ms. Rizzo leaves the door chain on, and asks, “What do you want?” Charlene says, “We’re here to tell you about Jim Himes, the Democratic congregational candidate.” I flinch as she says “congregational.” She has done it before, just as she again ignored the script we have been instructed to use. Ms. Rizzo closes the door with­ out a word. We write her down as “Not Home.” She will be contacted again soon because she has been identified as a part of one of the target universes— sometimes called “lazy Democrats”—and because the campaign has her phone number and address.

“This is a bad list,” Charlene says to me as we walk toward our next target, a couple of houses down the street. “I can’t believe they’ve sent us out here.

What a waste of time. Well, well—that’s their problem.” Episode 1.2 It is late afternoon in Fanwood, New Jersey, Linda Stender’s hometown, a town she has served as mayor and state assemblywoman for years and now hopes to represent in Congress. Her campaign office is in a worn-down demolitionslated building just across from the train station. Today we are four people Copyrighted Material Personalized Political Communication in American Campaigns   •  5 working the phones, calling voters to tell them about Stender and ask them a few questions about where they stand on the upcoming election. Everyone on the phones is a volunteer. All are well over sixty (except me). We sit in a room separate from where thestaff works.

Paula gets what she calls “a live one,” her first since she arrived twenty min­ utes ago. So far she has just been leaving messages. She reads the first lines of her script to the voter, asking who he plans to vote for in the fall. It turns out he is leaning toward Stender’s opponent, state senator Leonard Lance. Paula immediately gets into an argument with him. “I can’t believe you want to vote for a Republican after what Bush has done to our country! Dragged us into a criminal war for oil, undermined the Constitution, handed over billions in tax cuts to the wealthiest!” They talk for a few minutes. From what we can hear, it is a spirited discussion.

After she puts down the phone, Paula says to the rest of us,“I can’t believe there are people out there who aren’t Democrats.” We all chuckle. Clearly, Stender’s campaign staffers and her outside consultants have an inkling that there are some voters in the district who aren’t Democrats. Stender ran as a progressive in 2006 and lost narrowly to the incumbent Republican, Mike Ferguson. This cycle she is running as a moderate for what is now an open seat, without using her party affiliation or the name of the Democratic presidential nominee in her literature and advertisements. But many of the volunteers still see her—and pres­ ent her to voters—as the woman they support, “the old Linda.” Episode 1.3 Election Day is only a week away, and the field organizers are struggling to whip the GOTV (Get Out the Vote) program into shape. People are on the phones constantly, calling paid part-time canvassers and potential volunteers, trying to get them to confirm their availability over the weekend. There are thousands of shifts to be filled, walk packets to be assembled, call sheets to be printed. This is a major logistical operation, with many moving parts, pursued under intense time pressure.

One of the field organizers complains that his volunteers are “flaky” and won’t commit. The field director is stressed out: “We need more bodies!” He makes a call and then shouts to one of his deputies—who is technically employed by the state party and not the candidate—“We’ve got twenty more labor guys coming in. I need you to cut more turf. I’ll send you the lists.” Jack, the volunteer coordinator, is calmer, almost serene. He leans back and com­ ments on the commotion around us: “We’ll have to close some locations; it’ll never work with all those phone banks. Multiple locations: great in theory, bad in practice. But they won’t listen. We don’t have time for this.” Around 100 million Americans were contacted at the door or over the phone by various political organizations during the 2008 elections.

Copyrighted Material 6  •  Chapter 1 Millions of volunteers and tens of thousands of paid part-time workers did the contacting. Thousands of full-time staffers organized their efforts.

At the surface it looked like nothing new under the sun. Even if the num­ ber of contacts made varies over time (and it has increased dramatically from 2000 onward), canvassing voters, by foot or by phone, is a staple of American politics.

In some ways the conversations among people in 2008 probably were not all that different from those of 1988 or 1968:

“Who do you plan to vote for?” “Here is why you should support my guy.” “Now, remember to go and vote.” That is the basic blueprint as campaigns try to identify where people stand, sway the undecided, and bring out their supporters. Volunteers who cut their teeth on Michael Dukakis’s or even Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for the presidency can still use their experience at the door many years later when confronted with an uninterested, unfriendly, or otherwise unapproachable voter who does not care much for “that one,” the man who later became President Obama. At the face of things, on the front stage, canvassing seems largely unchanged.

But behind the scenes hundreds of specialists toiled at their computers to make it all possible, to maximize the instrumental impact, and to try to keep it all under control. Away from the doors and off the phones, staff­ ers, volunteers, and part-timers used new information and communica­ tion technologies ranging from by now mundane things like cell phones and email, to emerging tools like social networking sites, and to special­ ized technologies like tailor-made campaign Web pages and dedicated software solutions for targeting and management. In Washington, D.C., and in innumerable offices and coffee shops around the country, consul­ tants crunched numbers to make sure their client campaigns made the most of it all. The work done to sort index cards with voter information and to physically cut and paste the walk sheets for a canvass in 1968 or 1988 had little to do with what it took to update detailed Web-accessible voter files, synchronize personal digital assistants, and print turf maps in

2008. In political campaigns new technologies have not replaced older forms of communication as much as they have revived them.

The backstage changes are not only technological, they are also institu­ tional. When Barack Obama topped the ticket in 2008, many of the orga­ nizations that had provided much of the manpower to knock on doors for Dukakis and Humphrey—most importantly labor unions and local Democratic Party organizations—were no longer what they used to be.

Candidates and their staffers today have to piece together their own cam­ paign operations from a wider, less structured, and more unruly universe of allies, volunteers, and paid part-timers. The supposedly old-fashioned practice of contacting voters directly on behalf of a candidate or party is deeply intertwined with the most recent advances in online-integrated Copyrighted Material Personalized Political Communication in American Campaigns   •  7 software and database management; it is also deeply influenced by con­ temporary changes in how the major parties and their closest allies orga­ nize and are organized. Like campaign practices in general, these various forms of voter contact are characterized by both change and continuity.

This book deals with how American political campaigns pursue what I call “personalized political communication”—premeditated practices that use people as media for political communication. The main forms of this method of communication are door-to-door canvassing and phone banking, central parts of what political operatives call the “ground war.” I analyze this subject not to assess its impact on electoral behavior, but to identify the implications that ground war practices have for how we understand processes of political communication, for how we understand campaigns, and for how we understand what it means to take part in them—an important form of political participation, a part of what it means to have a government that is created at least partially “by the peo­ ple.” How campaigns are waged matters, not only for electoral outcomes but also for what democratic politics is.

Personalized political communication on the large scale we have seen in recent elections requires resources that are well beyond those com­ manded by campaign organizations built around individual candidates.

I show how this type of communication is pursued instead by wider “campaign assemblages” that include not only staffers and consultants but also allied interest groups and civic associations, numerous indi­ vidual volunteers and paid part-timers, and a party-provided technical infrastructure for targeting voters. Close scrutiny of how such campaign assemblages engage in personalized political communication leads me to challenge the dominant view of political communication in contempo­ rary America—that it is a tightly scripted, controlled, and professional­ ized set of practices that primarily represses turnout and turns people off politics in its cut-throat pursuit of victory. I highlight how even as they bankroll negative advertisements, feed the horserace coverage, and resort to direct mail attacks, campaigns also work hard to get out (especially partisan) voters and get people involved in (instrumental) forms of politi­ cal participation. Analysis of how campaign assemblages wage ground wars leads me to dispute the widespread idea that American politics is increasingly the province of a small coterie of professionals as well as the romantic notion that canvassing and the like represents some purer form of “grassroots politics.” I demonstrate how even well-funded competitive campaigns for federal office continue to rely on a wide range of nonpro­ fessional elements, how the campaign organizations themselves are at most unevenly professionalized, and also how even the most seemingly innocent volunteer canvass is tied in with specialized targeting technolo­ gies and staff expertise.

Copyrighted Material 8  •  Chapter 1 Finally, attention to campaigns’ and staffers’ instrumental need for people to engage in the labor-intensive work of personalized political communication, of contacting voters one at a time, at the door or over the phone, leads me to suggest that when elections are competitive and ambition is thus still made to counteract ambition, today’s political oper­ atives and political organizations have a renewed self-interest in getting people to participate in the political process as volunteers and voters.

Ground war campaigns are highly instrumental in their orientation; they pick and choose who they talk to and try to turn out, discriminate con­ sciously and unconsciously in who they mobilize as volunteers, and have not even a semblance of internal democracy. But they actively encourage participation and generate higher turnout, and that is a good thing for a democracy plagued by widespread indifference and a sense of disconnect between people and politics.

Ground war campaigns and practices of personalized political com­ munication offer a privileged point for observing American democracy in action. Working for a candidate or a party at election time is a para­ digmatic form of political participation, something millions of people do every year. Most of them, whether they are volunteers or part-timers, will be asked to knock on doors or make calls and talk to voters. Canvassing and phone banking are intensely social, organized, and outward-oriented activities; they cannot easily be done in isolation from the privacy of one’s living room like making an online donation to a candidate or writ­ ing out a check to be mailed to a campaign committee. Personal contacts confront participants with parts of the electorate, bring them together with others who are involved, and introduce them to the organizational and technological intricacies of contemporary campaigns. They offer an opportunity to try to influence (however slightly) electoral outcomes;

meet people with a passion for, or a professional commitment to, politics;

and, as one volunteer put it, “take a real-life lesson in practical politics.” To understand practices of personalized political communication is there­ fore to understand a crucial component in civic and political life.

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