Ground game

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It didn't make William Safire's list of "'08-isms", but for me, the most prominent phrase of this political campaign has been ground game. Thus Bob Drogin and Robin Abcarian, "In Ohio, Obama's ground game outguns McCain's", LA Times 11/3/2008:

Learning from the Bush effort, Obama has taken his fight directly into suburban and rural GOP strongholds in an effort to curb McCain's potential margins. Obama has 82 offices in the state, nearly twice as many as McCain. Labor unions are backing his effort with more than 12,000 volunteers.

"McCain does not have the kind of ground organization that Obama has, not even close," said Nancy Martorano, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

"I've never seen anything like the Obama ground game," agreed Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. "It is light-years ahead of what the Democrats did four years ago."

Or Walter Shapiro, "Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and Beyond…", Salon, 11/4/2008:

There are secret weapons in every campaign for Election Day, but rarely do they include bulbous red noses or tossing plates in the air. Doug Kelly, the executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party, proudly explained his three-ring-circus strategy: "We have hired every juggler, clown, balloon entertainer and high-school marching band in the state of Ohio to keep people waiting in line to vote."

No one is suggesting that the battle for Ohio's 20 electoral votes will be decided by greasepaint smiles and off-key renditions of "Stars and Stripes Forever." But in a campaign year when parsing the polls has become a national obsession, the impossible to quantify X-factor is the potency of Barack Obama's ground game for getting out the vote. "There are no phone calls in Ohio today by the Obama campaign," said David Wilhelm, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who lives in suburban Columbus. "Everything is door-to-door. I think the impact is different from this kind of personal validation, neighbor-to-neighbor. It's a big deal, especially in rural southeastern Ohio."

The McCain campaign in Ohio is much more heavily reliant on phone banking, as was the 2004 Bush campaign that eked out a keep-the-White House 120,000-vote victory here. As Kevin Dewine, the deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, put it, "Our ground game is not loud. It's not flashy. We don't brag. But we get it done."

Neighboring Indiana, with 11 electoral votes, is this year's most unlikely presidential battleground state — the Democrats have carried it exactly once since the 1930s. (The 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide.) But the Obama campaign has been sending organizers into counties where, based on prior elections, Esperanto speakers outnumber Democrats. Brian Howey, the nonpartisan editor of Indiana's leading political journal, predicted, "With all the polls showing the race here as too close to call, I'm going to say that Obama will pull it out, because he has a ground game and an intensity that Indiana has never seen."

As far as I can tell from a quick site search, the NYT used the phrase in eight news stories during the past 30 days — two of these were about football and six were about politics.

Of course, the application of the phrase to local political organizing is not new. The earliest example that I've been able to find is from twenty years ago — Robin Toner, "Dukakis Nears the Wire in 9-State, 48-Hour Dash", 11/8/1988, NYT:

In Ohio, as in California and elsewhere, the Dukakis campaign was touting its field operation and hoping that it would make the difference in close states. "What it comes down to is the old ground game, maybe," said Paul Pezzella, an organizer in Ohio.

(Or maybe not, at least for Dukakis in 1988.)

The implicit contrast is with activities "in the air", especially political advertising, as made explicit by a quote in Leslie Wayne, "Iowa Pivotal for Forbes's Battle to Counter Bush", 12/13/1999:

This time, the Forbes campaign here says, it has learned from those mistakes. "In 1996 we threw some ads up on the air, but we didn't have a ground game," Mr. Grubbs said. "This time we have a ground organization second to none to compete with Bush."

The use of "game plan" in politics is older, e.g. "Nixon 3: Daring 'Game Plan' For the Economy", 2/1/1970:

President Nixon and his Council of Economic Advisers outlined last week an almost daring "game plan" for economic strategy in 1970.

Sometimes discussions of political game plans use ground game in a completely non-specific way, as in Gerald M. Boyd, "Bush is Sticking With a Safe Game Plan", 10/24/1988, where the metaphor is not transferred from football except in the vague sense that a "ground game" is one of a number of different strategic options:

Mr. Bush's strategists had been considering a shift in the campaign to focus more on the election of republican senatorial candidates or on a post-election agenda. meeting in recent days, they decided against such a move. […]

"If the game plan has been one of throwing the ball, we are not about to suddenly change to a ground game," said Charles Black Jr., a strategist for the Bush campaign, discussing the contest in terms of a football game. "That won't make any sense."

In football the contrast is indeed between the ground game (where the offensive team tries to advance the ball by running with it) and the passing game. The earliest explicit reference that I've been able to find to "ground game" (with or without "passing" nearby) is in "Rockne favors changes", NYT 10/25/1930:

In a radio talk at Pittsburgh last night over the Columbia Broadcasting System, Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football coach, declared that the restrictions on the ground game in favor of forward passing had overbalanced football and that the rules committee could undoubtedly restore the balance by altering the rules.

(If you can antedate this one for the Gipper, please let us know in the comments.)

The use of "running game" in contrast to "passing game" seems to be earlier, e.g. "Harvard Freshmen hold the 'Varsity", NYT 10/22/1914:

The youngsters' score came at the end of the practice, a kick being blocked, and then when the 'Varsity had stopped the freshmen's running game, Horne, a back field man, made a drop kick goal from the field.

The Canadian players went home tonight. They have spent three days showing the second team their passing game. Harvard may use some of this later, but now is better prepared than formerly to defend itself against the rugby tactics that are being used at New Haven.

Earlier examples tend to reference the kind of ground-game that the OED defines "game which lives on the ground, as hares and rabbits"; uses of this phrase are especially thick around the time of the Ground Game Bill of 1880.

[As in many areas of words derived from American sports, the OED is due for some improvement here. There doesn't seem to be any specific sub-entry for (either football or political) ground game in the current on-line version, though the entry for blitz, v., has this citation:

1977 Chicago Tribune 2 Oct. III. 12/2 Fullback Russell Davis, bursting up the middle against swarming blitzers, led Michigan's ground game with 110 yards in 19 tries.



  1. mollymooly said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:44 am

    In the 2004 election the distinction was between the "ground war" and the "air war".

  2. Luis said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 8:38 am

    Also: "ground game" in martial arts refers to grappling with one's opponent (as opposed to striking). In some ways it's not a bad metaphor for this political ground game.

  3. bulbul said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    "Ground game" I get and it never struck me as strange, considering the how often of the noun "game" crops up in American idioms.
    To me, "in the tank for X" is the true 08-electionism and perhaps even 08-ism. Especially after yesterday's "The Daily Show" – "Why is life in tank for Barack Obama?"

  4. Jonathan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    The football metaphor is apt. The ground game is less spectacular, harder to get right and (although they constantly change the rules to try and change this) more effective than the passing game. It's cool to have an ad that everybody talks about. It's boring to have ten thousand people drive people to the polls. The passing game has more possibility for disaster but has a higher reward for success (leading to the doubly metaphoric 'Hail Mary.')

  5. Ken said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    William Safire misses the boat, a lot. He seems to have next to zero connection to popular culture. Witness his cluelessness about the phrase "Manic Monday" in a recent column.

  6. Micah said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    exactly what I was thinking, mollymooly, no one wants to be labeled pro-war, but it's the same "ground war/ air war" analogy.

  7. Joe said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 3:07 am

    If you want more usage examples, has been talking about the "ground game" for the last several months and has dozens of articles where they visited as many of the candidates' field offices as they could.

    I honestly didn't notice most of the other press covering it at all, frankly, though I guess there must have been a few. I've read too much news lately, though, so I might just be forgetful, too.

  8. Democrats On Best Political Blogs » Blog Archive » Gound game said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 6:12 am

    […] Gound game "I've never seen anything like the Obama ground game," agreed Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. "It is light-years ahead of what the Democrats did four years ago." Or Walter Shapiro, "Ohio, … […]

  9. Democrats On Best Political Blogs » Blog Archive » Ground game said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 6:13 am

    […] Ground game "It is light-years ahead of what the Democrats did four years ago." […]

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    I have to wonder if there's a kind of subliminal reference to the past tense of "grind" in this use of "ground game." A former NFL coach, Chuck Knox, who was known for his over-devotion to the ground game, was derisively nicknamed "Ground Chuck."

  11. Mark Peters said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    There's another meaning of ground game that could be having an influence. In the mega-popular mixed martial arts, there's also a ground game:

    "Chael Sonnen could be a title contender in the UFC, but he still needs more submission defense. He'll beat guys that rely heavily on either stand up or the ground game, but fighters that can put him on his back and guys with both good stand up and ground game will give him trouble."
    (Nov. 8, 2008,

    "Having the ground game as a powerful Jiu-Jitsu ace, which Silva lacked, and coming off a devastating head kick that knocked out and nearly decapitated heavily favored Mirko Cro Cop, many believed Gonzaga would be the author to write the final chapter of Couture’s storybook run at the top of the heavyweight division."
    (Nov. 6, 2008,

    "'She’s one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime athletes who can be as good as they want to be,' observed XFC president John Prisco, as he watched Hallback practice her ground game with trainer Shah “Hollywood” Bobonis."
    (Nov. 3, 2008,

    I don't know MMA very well, but I presume GG mostly means wrestling as opposed to kicking or boxing or other vertical-type assaults.

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