How ‘Ground Game’ Moved From the Gridiron to Politics

Victorious officials turn to football terms popularized in the 1920s.

Nov. 5, 2014 12:30 p.m. ET

As Republicans trumpeted their victories over Democratic rivals in Tuesday’s midterm elections, many GOP leaders chalked up their success to a superior “ground game”: effectively mobilizing voters to get them to the polls.

“We’ve had a ground game like we never had before,” declared Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who won a second term after a tough race. Illinois Republican Party Chairman

Tim Schneider


Bruce Rauner

beat incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn because the GOP “built the greatest ground game Illinois has ever seen.”

The “ground game” has become something of a political cliché in the past few election cycles, often distinguished from the “air game,” referring to the use of campaign resources to run commercials for candidates over radio and television airwaves.

“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.

A 1921 article in the Charlotte Observer previewed a matchup between the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the Davidson Wildcats by noting that “the aerial game” was expected to be “used extensively by both teams,” while “a great ground game if successful is also hazardous.”

It would take another 60 years for the football terms to enter the political field of play. In a 1981 column for the Los Angeles Times,

Andrew Young,

then between stints as U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, made the athletic analogy explicit.

“So get ready for the big playoffs in 1982 and the Super Bowl in 1984,” Mr. Young wrote, alluding to the coming midterm and presidential elections. “The far right will take to the air. The opposition will launch a new ground game, which would be helped by an air attack if the money is available.”

“Ground game” and “air game” became political staples in the 1988 showdown between Michael Dukakis and

George H.W. Bush.

That August, the Washington Post reported that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s presence on the Dukakis ticket was galvanizing Democratic turnout efforts in Texas. “While the Democratic ‘ground game’ in Texas seems unusually strong,” the Post wrote, “so is the Republicans’.”

In a more bellicose variation on the theme, “ground war” and “air war” have also been pressed into service by political operatives. (A “ground war” inevitably requires “boots on the ground” in the form of grass-roots volunteers.) But the gridiron lingo has been more favored of late, perhaps because military metaphors seem a bit overblown for activities as innocuous as door-to-door canvassing and manning phone banks.