One of my pet peeves as a new media consultant is that many campaigns and organizations possess a Harry Potter style belief in how new media operates. The belief goes something like this:
This is frustrating because it views new media as a magical realm that is the province of a few magical people who can somehow produce massive, tangible benefit to a campaign without any resources being invested in their efforts. In reality, new media requires significant investment of money and manpower to get an appropriate return on that investment.
- Hire someone who works in new media;
- Person just hired in new media waves magic wand;
- Something amazing happens to benefit the campaign.
The subject of this post is another one of my pet peeves: the very similar belief among election observers about the magical nature of field campaigns. This belief goes as follows:
Salon's war room offers up an example of this belief in their discussion of the Pennsylvania Senate primary today:
- Polling shows a candidate tied, or down a couple points;
- The candidate has a strong filed campaign;
- The candidate will defy polling and win due to strong field campaign
Obama's absence from the state means the race will probably just come down to whichever side has the stronger ground game. Polls have it virtually deadlocked (though one new one out Thursday had Sestak winning by nine points). Vice President Biden may still return before Tuesday. A close election that hinges on turnout could favor Specter, who's got several big unions plus the powerful Philadelphia Democratic apparatus on his side.
This is a nonsensical, Harry Potter style belief. It is also very widespread--I am not just picking on Salon here, just using a relevant news item as an example.
Have the mobilization efforts of the unions, Organizing for America, and the Philadelphia Democratic party somehow escaped the results of public opinion surveys to date? Of course not. The efforts of those groups to persuade voters and make them more likely to vote are already included in the public opinion surveys measuring the Pennsylvania Senate primary (which, on average, give Sestak a narrow lead).
Field campaigning does not operate in a different plane of non-muggle existence from other forms of voter contacts (paid media, free media, new media). Field campaigning is also not excluded from polling. Voters who have been contacted by phone calls, yard signs, or by person to person canvassing on the ground, are, just like all other voters, contacted by pollsters. The likelihood of these voters turning up to the polls is, just like all other voters, also measured by pollsters.
Polls measure the strength and effectiveness of field campaigns to date, as polls measure the strength and effectiveness of all campaigning through the date when the poll was conducted. The only way that a strong field campaign could surprise polls would be if that field campaign spent a disproportionate amount of its resources after the last public opinion survey had concluded its interviews. However,t his can be said of any aspect of a campaign, not just field. If a campaign spends disproportionate resources on television ads after the final poll was conducted, or one that manages to score a particularly good news cycle after the final poll was conducted, then the final poll will not measure the effectiveness of that aspect of the campaign, either.
For an example of how polling already measures the strength of field campaigns, look no further than the 2008 Presidential election. The final 15-day simple mean of national polls in 2008 showed Barack Obama ahead by 7.44% (across 61 polls, scroll to the link at the bottom). The final 2008 results gave Obama a 7.27% victory in the national popular vote. Few would dispute that the gap in quality between the field operations of the Obama and McCain campaign s was one of the highest ever in a Presidential election, with the decisive edge going to Obama. And yet, this advantage did not translate into an improvement for Obama from the final polls to the final result. This is because the strength of field operations, as is the strengthen of all aspects of a campaign, are measured by public opinion surveys.
The belief that field operations can produce a hidden vote polls are missing simply does not make any sense. Such a belief may serve as a comfort --or as a fear-based motivating tactic-- to steel the nerves of supporters of one candidate or another, but it is not supportable by either deductive reasoning or empirical observation.