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The ground game in presidential elections

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If you spend a significant amount of time on the Twitter dot com website, you will have probably seen people freaking out because the Biden campaign isn’t investing in canvasing. After all, Robby Mook invested enormous resources in the ground game and this went very we…I’ll come in again.

Anyway, Dylan Matthews had a good summary of the research on this earlier in the month, and at the level of national elections (where there are relatively few persuadable voters and voter contact focuses on turnout) canvassing is not a very efficient tactic and phoning/texting works fine:

Given the central role canvassing has played in recent Democratic presidential campaigns, you would think this discrepancy would prompt some concern among Democrats who believe in the ground game. But some people in the world of Democratic campaigns are coming around to a different view: Maybe door-knocking really isn’t as important as we all thought.

Most political scientists I talked to affirmed this view. Melissa Michelson, professor of political science and an expert on field experiments for voter turnout, told me, “That the Biden campaign can’t engage in door-to-door canvassing is maybe not that big of a loss because we actually have tons of data about how to effectively and in a cost-efficient way mobilize voters from all different parts of the Democratic coalition — younger voters, low-income voters, Black voters, Latino voters — without going door to door.”

Indeed, there’s a growing body of research suggesting that methods like calling voters and “relational” voter turnout seem to be as effective — if not more effective — than traditional door-knocking.

To be clear, there’s a consensus that field work can juice turnout and even persuade voters in primary elections or local elections where the candidates are less well-known and voters’ opinions are less formed.

But skeptics argue that you can’t just look at whether the effect of a field operation is positive or negative. You have to ask how many votes it pulls in per dollar spent, and compare that to whatever the equivalent figure is on alternative uses of campaign money: TV ads, digital ads, direct mail, and non-knocking fieldwork like phone banking. Given the expense of running a good field team, skeptics argue that the cost-per-vote is too high relative to alternatives and that Covid-19 might serendipitously be pushing campaigns away from inefficient uses of resources and toward more efficient ones.

“There’s not any other kind of information we try to communicate by going door to door,” says David Shor, an independent Democratic data analyst who helped develop Obama’s data analytics operation in 2012. When big companies want to get the word out about their products, they use ads — and Shor and other field skeptics think campaigns should double down on those, too.

In an ordinary context, in probably still makes sense to do more canvassing than is strictly economically rational because it keeps some enthusiastic volunteers engaged, but…this isn’t a normal context.

And even in primary campaigns, I think that candidates can let what seems most effective to very engaged people dictate their strategy in ways that are counterproductive. The single biggest blunder of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign was focusing on field organizing at the expense of advertising and earned media, which didn’t even work in Iowa:

Shor also points to the 2020 primary for a particularly illustrative example:

[Elizabeth] Warren spent the entire cycle building up this massive army of organizers in Iowa who knocked on a bunch of doors. This is a low-salience race: only 7.6 percent of Iowans voted in the [Democratic] caucuses. But what [Pete] Buttigieg did is take roughly the same amount of money she spent on field, and spent it on TV in the summer [of 2019]. That made him go up in the polls to the point that the media started covering him. That helped him raise more money so he could buy more TV, and he almost won.

Shor’s conclusion: The Warren organizer-based model is a waste of money. The Buttigieg strategy, based on TV and earned media, got much closer to succeeding.

Politically active people overrate the effect of fieldwork for the same reason generations of baseball managers overrated smallball tactics: it gives you an illusion of control over the action. Personally, Biden’s decision to focus on text and phone contact seems like a reasonable allocation of resources in this context.

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