With Election Day just a month away, the election campaign for national positions (President, Vice-President, or senator) has now entered the phase where the candidates will either succeed or fail depending on the strength of their “ground game” or field operations.
According to modern campaign politics and popular journalism, a political campaign for high office must engage in two essential activities to deliver its message to voters: an “air game” and a “ground game.”
The air game
1.The air game or air war denotes mass media advertising (especially on TV and radio), which is now considered essential for every presidential campaign.
In the US, because the President and Vice-President are chosen as a tandem, there is essentially only one campaign.
Here in the Philippines, it’s not unusual for presidential and vice-presidential candidates to have their respective campaigns. Loyalty is nominal; every candidate is free to cut a deal with the competition in order to win.
2. The ground game denotes the activities of a campaign in the field and at the grassroots.
This means that the campaign engages in frequent, direct and personal contact with voters in order to amass the support needed for victory.
A good field operation harnesses the power of a campaign’s base by turning supporters into volunteers, and volunteers into activists and leaders. Field organizing is the very definition of grassroots campaigning, done primarily by volunteers from the bottom up.
According to Bill Kremmer, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, the terms “air game” and “ground game” originally came from American football, and not from military usage.
He wrote: “Ground game” and “air game” are metaphors that come directly from the football field. In the 1920s, college football teams became increasingly reliant on the forward pass, then a relatively new innovation. The “ground game” came to describe how the offense could gain yards by old-fashioned rushing rather than flashy passing.”
Whichever is the source, the terms have now become clichés in campaign politics and journalism.
Two months in the air, one on the ground
In the case of our current presidential election campaign, we can definitely say that the first two months of the campaign have focused on the air game.
Candidates have competed in delivering their messages to voters by advertising their campaigns on television and radio.
Because of the high costs of TV spots on the major networks, only the presidential candidates have been able to put up a serious air game.
Some vice-presidential candidates have been sporadically seen on TV. Except for a very few, senatorial campaigns have no air games.
According to estimates, some 2 billion pesos has already been spent on mass media advertising. This will rise exponentially this month the all the way up to May 9.
In the last few weeks, the candidates will elbow each other to secure prime positions for their messaging in popular TV programs, both entertainment and news.
The big TV networks are clearly the big winners in profiting from the elections. But they’re not doing any serious work in enlightening the public on the serious issues central to the elections, or reporting significant information about the candidates.
Regardless of the prominence of the air war, however, the election will not be won or lost in the air game.
The presidency and the vice-presidency will not necessarily be won by the candidates who have bought the most spots and spent the most money advertising themselves
Ground game will be decisive factor
When the contest shifts to the ground game, any little advantage gained during the air war could evaporate if it is not backed up by strong field operations.
The main point of field or grassroots operations is this. Direct voter contact or direct selling is the most effective way to win a campaign.
A good campaign field plan starts with electoral targeting, or aiming the campaign towards the number of votes or groups of votes needed to win.
A good campaign builds a base of support for the candidate, in much the same way that a good advertising strategy effectively delivers his core message to voters.
Base building involves enlisting volunteers on the campaign, and empowering them within the campaign organization. Ideally. Committed volunteers will become leaders in the campaign, helping in essential voter identification and persuasion work.
Campaigns are about the management of three precious resources – time, money and people. Targeting serves to focus the campaign’s activities and use the assets wisely.
Harvard study of presidential elections
Presidential election campaigns have become an area of interest and study at the Harvard Business School.
In 2014, a professor and a doctoral student collaborated on a study entitled, “The Air War versus The Ground Game: An Analysis of Multi-Channel Marketing in US Presidential Elections.”
The new research from Harvard shows that mass advertising is better at swaying undecided consumers while face-to-face personal selling is more suited at closing the deal for those already leaning toward a particular product.
In an election, the products in question are the candidates. And it is for them that the ground game is most important.
The authors report that “the reason Obama won both his presidential battles was because of the utilization of ground forces – the personal selling and get-out-the-vote strategy.”
Chung and Zhang pored over 18,650 observations on voting outcomes and campaign activities for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential races. They studied the number of votes cast in each county for the candidates and used registered party affiliation at the county level to look at how campaign effects differed depending on the level of voter partisanship.
Which strategy is more effective for the election of a President, and why?
What Chung and Zhang discovered was that personal selling—the ground war—had a stronger effect on partisan voters, but a candidate’s own advertising was better received by nonpartisans.
Barack Obama’s ground campaign made the difference in the last two presidential elections.
The strategy wasn’t just about the numbers of field offices. The real key was operatives getting out in the communities and face-to-face contacts.
Insufficiency of air game
Looking back at our own recent elections, we have indelible lessons too about the insufficiency of the air game to win the political battle.
In 2010, Manny Villar had a very sophisticated advertising program to market him. Yet, by the final month of the campaign, he had nothing to show.
In 2004, the campaign of Fernando Poe Jr. similarly looked formidable and popular. But it did not have sufficient field operations to back up his popularity.
Ed Malay, the head of issues and Advocacy Center, says that Grace Poe may be headed for the same fate as his adoptive father. She has no troops to send into battle.
Rody Duterte’s campaign exhibits much energy and has a bit of a groundswell. But there is no campaign organization; PDP-Laban is a ragtag party.
This leaves Mar Roxas and Jojo Binay, who as my colleague Bobi Tiglao has noted, are the ones with a real political machinery.
They have troops to send to battle.