The persistent belief in magical field campaigns

by: Chris Bowers

Fri May 14, 2010 at 12:07


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:

  1. Hire someone who works in new media;
  2. Person just hired in new media waves magic wand;
  3. Something amazing happens to benefit the campaign.
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.

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:

  1. Polling shows a candidate tied, or down a couple points;
  2. The candidate has a strong filed campaign;
  3. The candidate will defy polling and win due to strong field campaign
Salon's war room offers up an example of this belief in their discussion of the Pennsylvania Senate primary today:

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.

Chris Bowers :: The persistent belief in magical field campaigns

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What distinction is to be made between "Field Campaign" with "GOTV" (0.00 / 0)
Just playing devil's advocate here, but consider this argument:

1. Most political Polls reflect voter preference.
2. Although some polls show voter intensity, this is rarely polled in specific congressional races.
3. While the effectiveness of a Field Campaign is reflected in voter preference polls, GOTV is not.
4. A campaign may have a disproportionately strong GOTV effort compared with the broader Field Campaign.

Alternatively, keep in mind that whatever distinction you or I may make between Field Campaign and GOTV, most political journalists are too lazy to make such a distinction.


Caveats (0.00 / 0)
I'd agree, except that field Is only accurately captured by polling if the likely voter screen is valid for projecting actual votes, and If the sample contains an accurate profile of the electorate (think cell
phones.) People who are voting but not captured will skew the ability of a poll to reflect field efforts.

The 2008 Presidential election was a lot easier to poll than a volatile midterm primary, however. Accurate voter sentiment and commiment is much harder to pinpoint when turnout is lower and more
fickle.  

Help us Optimize McCain! Use these widgets to make it crazy-easy...


Unions (4.00 / 1)
This meme regarding Specter's union support is laughable.  Sure, he received the majority of union endorsements, but I will wager any amount of money offered that union members will vote for Joe Sestak come Tuesday.  The union leadership has been in a near panic over this fact.  At the PA AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh last month, even Rich Trumka (one of the most dynamic speakers in labor movement) got crickets from the delegates the THREE TIMES that he lauded Specter in his otherwise inspiring remarks.  

And don't forget .. (0.00 / 0)
for all the Philly readers here .. Bob Brady(who is the head of the Philly Democratic "machine" .. and also presently in Congress) ran for Philly Mayor in 2007 .. and he came in a distant 3rd .. so much for the vaunted "machine"!!

[ Parent ]
One Niggle (0.00 / 0)
In addition to the points raised above--or partially reframing them, perhaps--it does seem that really seasoned field campaigns can outperform in last-minute GOTV.  Of course, this becomes less and less relevant as more and more GOTV efforts go into early voting, so that the "last-minute" factor is less and less impactful.

Further complicating matters is Savage's observation about the union leaders/members split--a split often seen nowadays, as the political quid-pro-quo pulls leaders one way, while perceived interests and values pull members the others.

All of which adds up to thinking that Chris has it pretty much pegged, but that there are situtations in which the brain-dead narrative could turn out to prove right--in the time-honored "stopped clock is right two times a day" fashion.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


Impactful? (0.00 / 0)
C'mon Paul, you're better than that. ;)

Tim Wolfe

[ Parent ]
Yup, I Can (0.00 / 0)
But when I'm really trying to focus on my weekend diaries, to the point of not even eating breakfast--or even making my morning coffee--then not so much.

Coffee, breakfast... they're impactful!


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Early voting (0.00 / 0)
Of course, this becomes less and less relevant as more and more GOTV efforts go into early voting, so that the "last-minute" factor is less and less impactful.

Wouldn't this be a component of the "field" ops Chris is downplaying?

...Adding, early voting is not a zero sum game. Every early cast vote is one less possible late switch to the other side; It's one less person needing possible election day GOTV attention.

Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans


[ Parent ]
In 2006 (0.00 / 0)
there had been accepted the idea that the GOP had a superior field organization, and as a result always outperformed the polls.  Partly this was a Rove sales job, but journalists repeated.

So when I actually looked at the data, it became obvious that there was no GOP advantage.  As is so often the case political reporters seldom actually look at the data to support their articles.

The average baseball reporter is far better about looking at the data than the average political reporter.


Cue Dave Frishberg's "The Sports Page" (0.00 / 0)
"The one place to go when you really want to know the score."

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
with this post (0.00 / 0)
are you implying that wizards aren't real? Evidence?

n=1? (0.00 / 0)
shouldn't the sample be bigger?

I think the basic point to be made here (4.00 / 1)
is that the media doesn't really understand campaigns or how they are won and lost and most campaign managers, workers and candidates don't either. I think that's pretty clearly true.  

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power

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