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Book Review: Grassroots for Hire

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Title: Grassroots for Hire

Author: Edward T. Walker

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-1-107-61901-2

Length: 282

Price: $32.99

Rating: 96%


I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Grassroots politics, the common term for political movements that use popular participation to effect change, came to prominence in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Starting in the 1930s, but particularly in response to the social movements of the 1960s that challenged the ruling elites, consulting firms offered services to help clients develop, focus, and deploy campaigns to shape policy using popular opinion.

Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology and that University of California, Los Angeles, captured the results of his detailed study of political consulting firms specializing in grassroots mobilization in his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy. The product of several years’ work interviewing grassroots consulting firms and analyzing data on the industry, Walker’s book offers a dispassionate and detailed look into this category of firms.

An Example Campaign

The author opens his commentary with a discussion of Students for Academic Choice, an advocacy organization started by for-profit colleges and trade schools such as the University of Phoenix. This organization ran an advocacy campaign, which included letter-writing and email efforts from students of for-profit universities, with the goal of ensuring these schools remained on the approved institutions list for federal student loan programs.

Students for Academic Choice recruited student leaders and provided support services, including template emails students could send to lawmakers public email accounts. All the participant had to do was fill in information such as their course of study and institution before sending it to their representative. The process of identifying opinion leaders, designing support activities, and driving participation is different in the details but often follows a standard pattern that’s well suited to templated consulting.

Walker goes into some detail on the structure of and range of services offered by grassroots consulting firms. Many of the interviews were done on a not-for-attribution basis, but in some of those cases he could still share significant details by choosing what to reveal and masking the identity of the firm and the individual he spoke with. As with any profession, participants show a range of motivations and attitudes, ranging from caring deeply about the issues they choose to support to working actively for whoever is willing to hire them.


Grassroots for Hire also spends a good deal of time on so-called “astroturf” campaigns. AstroTurf is the patented trade name of a synthetic turf used on sports fields for many years. Just as AstroTurf might be thought of as “fake grass”, a “fake grassroots” campaign could by analogy be called an “astroturf” campaign. The author cites three considerations that could indicate a popular campaign is illegitimate (p. 33):

  • Incentivized: Participants are offered incentives for their engagement or threatened with negative consequences if they do not take part.
  • Fraudulent: Participants either do not believe or do not fully comprehend the claims they are making (or, worse, campaign organizers engage in fraud by attributing claims to individuals that were never actually made). Participants take part despite these limitations because they are either incentivized or threatened….
  • Masquerading: The campaign has covert elite sponsorship and is masquerading as a movement with a broad base of non-elite support.

It’s easy for a campaign’s opponents to dismiss it out of hand as a fake effort funded by one or more elite interests, but often difficult to prove any direct involvement without information from an opinion leader recruited by campaign consultants or copies of the “generated mail”.


The author rounds out his coverage of public affairs consulting in support of grassroots campaigns with a series of appendices describing the data his team collected and the specific methodologies used to analyze it. These appendices bridge the gap between the author’s doctoral dissertation (from which this book is adapted) and a published work. Academic writing doesn’t always translate well to the traditional publishing world, even for established houses such as Cambridge University Press, but in this case the transition was successful.

Walker’s goal in writing Grassroots for Hire was to provide factual and statistical support for debate about the consequences of professional consultants providing advocacy support services. His analysis more than meets that challenge. Highly recommended.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Book Review: The Gamble, from Princeton University Press

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Cover graphic for The Gamble

Title: The Gamble

Authors: John Sides and Lynn Vavreck

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Copyright: 2013

ISBN13: 978-0-691-15688-0

Length: 322

Price: $29.95

Rating: 93%

I received access to a preview copy of this book via the NetGalley site.

The popular media covers U.S. presidential campaigns like announcers calling a horse race, highlighting every move, nuance, and setback as if it could determine the winner. Why? Because not doing so would give viewers tacit permission to watch something else, drive down the networks’ ratings, and cost them advertising dollars. One journalist from Mother Jones identified 68 unique events the press labeled “game changers.” Were they, or was it just meaningless hype?


In The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck analyze the race’s twists and turns in measured tones, emphasizing the role “the fundamentals” (especially the economy) play in presidential elections. Sides is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the coauthor of Campaigns and Elections. He cofounded and contributes to The Monkey Cage, a politics blog. Vavreck is associate professor of political science and communications at UCLA. As academics, they had to strike a balance between writing for a general audience versus writing for an academic audience.

Books without sufficient analytical rigor might not be considered during tenure evaluations, so the authors took a bit of a risk by writing mainly for laymen. I thought they struck a clever and useful balance by dividing the book into two sections: commentary text, where the authors summarize their findings in the main body of the book; and appendixes that present their data and analyses in more depth. The main text contains plenty of facts and figures, but the appendices extend the analysis by including summary statistics (such as standard deviation and standard error) and other measures of interest to professional academics.


So, did the various campaign gaffes, missteps, blunders, and revelations make a difference? Sides and Vavreck conclude that, in the long run, they did not. The American electorate is more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans with only a small percentage of persuadable voters for each election. Seemingly substantial missteps such as Mitt Romney’s statement about the (alleged) 47% of Americans who pay no income tax and Barack Obama’s (real) horrific performance in the first debate caused a momentary blip in the polls, but the candidates’ results settled back to the predicted norm within a few days.

The Republican primary season provides an even starker example of how Mitt Romney kept his forward momentum as challengers such as Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum were “discovered” by the media but ran off the road due to policy mismatches with the electorate, poor debate performance, or personal issues the press uncovered. The fundamentals of Romney’s campaign didn’t guarantee him the nomination, but the odds were ever in his favor.

So too with Obama, who could rely on an (albeit slowly) improving economy to lift his campaign. Sides and Vavreck point out that even a general sense that things are getting better makes the incumbent very hard to overcome. Just as most Vegas odds makers give NFL teams a three-point edge for home field advantage, improving economic times provide a lift to sitting presidents.

Of course, campaigns and independent organizations do their best to overcome these limitations through voter outreach (aka the vaunted Obama “ground game”) and advertising. The authors’ analysis confirms previous work that ads shift opinions for a short time after viewing, but the effect fades quickly. The Romney campaign tried to leverage that fact by buying a lot of advertising in the days just before the election, but the Obama campaign had done a good job of maintaining their candidate’s presence and prevented the Romney campaign from succeeding.

The Gamble also addresses what the Obama win implies for American politics. Did his win, which was by a reasonably substantial margin, constitute a mandate and indicate a liberal trend in the polity? Recent votes in favor of legalizing gay marriage and marijuana seem to argue in favor of that interpretation, but Sides and Vavreck found that the electorate tends to equilibrate by moving in opposition to the winning candidate’s views. In other words, a liberal candidate’s win results in a more conservative electorate and vice-versa.


When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, the percentage of the electorate that will vote for their preferred party’s candidate regardless of attempted persuasion is so large as to render most campaigning moot. The campaign machines are so well-tuned, the authors argue, they cancel each other out over the long run. The fundamental elements, especially the economy, are far more relevant. I find that aspect of The Gamble comforting.

Before I close, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the cover designer. I didn’t see the designer’s name in my preview copy of the book, but the cover image uses the point of the “A” in “Gamble” as the fulcrum of a dynamic balance between red and blue, which is a terrific touch. It makes a good book that much better.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at