At a Latinos for Trump roundtable in Phoenix in August, Alma Rodriguez said she had yet to hear from Joe Biden’s campaign this cycle. But the 28-year-old has been approached several times by canvassers and volunteers from the Trump campaign – and she’s started visiting the organization’s office.
“I go to the center and talk with people who just have a passion,” she said.
Part of this is by design. For months now, the Biden campaign has been focused on digital and phone messaging, avoiding traditional in-person canvassing efforts in the hope of curbing Covid-19 risks for voters and staff. They’ve been hoping their caution sends the message that they take the virus, and their voters well being, seriously.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign says it has already knocked on 19m doors across the US. And Trump has continued to hold political rallies across the country, many of which have drawn thousands of people without masks, and are linked to Covid cases in Tulsa and Saginaw.
But on Thursday, the Biden campaign announced it was changing course. After reports that Democrats were growing frustrated by the campaign’s decision not to have a robust ground game, it unveiled a new effort to dispatch several hundred volunteers across critical swing states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan and New Hampshire.
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The coronavirus has hung over a bitterly divided election. The Trump administration has been downplaying the severity of the virus since February, and balking at public health interventions such as widespread mask mandates and citywide lockdowns.
Biden supporters say its caution this year, then, was entirely justified. “I know if somebody knocked on my door I’d be mortified,” said Moe Vela, a former senior advisor to Biden, before the announcement. “I don’t know who’s touched what, who’s breathed what.”
Instead the Biden campaign has been focusing on new ways of reaching voters, such as virtual yard signs in the popular Animal Crossing video game or drive-in movie theater-style rallies.
Even so, volunteers say they haven’t been able to reach every voter they had hoped to. “It’s just harder and harder to get people on the phone,” Patrick Sullivan, a Biden volunteer who lives in suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press. “So being able to go to someone’s door and talk to them makes a big difference.”
The Biden camp opened 109 supply centers with campaign material and voter education pamphlets to distribute, as well as a supply of personal protective equipment and thermometers to avoid an outbreak.
The volunteers have also been trained to focus on the voting process itself. There is an expected surge in mail-in voting this year, as voters hope to avoid long lines during the pandemic, leading to increased confusion and logistical issues with absentee ballots. In Pennsylvania, a pivotal state, voters could forget to use the ballot secrecy envelopes, making their votes invalid. In Florida, hundreds of ballots have already been rejected because voters didn’t sign the envelope.
Republicans say the new strategy is hypocritical, and possibly, futile.
“President Trump’s re-election team has been knocking doors, safely for months. We’re now averaging 2m doors a week, and growing,” said Steve Guest, a Republican National Committee spokesperson in an email statement. “Joe Biden’s campaign is trying to shoe string together a ground game with less than 33 days to go, but it’s too little, too late.”
But David Broockman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied voter persuasion efforts, said the value of in-person organizing may be overstated, particularly during a pandemic.
“I’m more concerned that Trump is outspending Biden on the air in Georgia and parts of Minnesota,” he said in an email. “I’m skeptical that this is a productive and safe use of volunteer hours relative to alternatives like calling friends or writing postcards to voters.”
Mac Stipanovich, a retired Republican political operative in Florida, agreed. He said he didn’t think door knocking would have much of an effect in persuading people to vote for either candidate. Door knocking for Biden, he said, was “more cosmetic than substantive”.
“It allows the Biden campaign to demonstrate that, yes, they have people who are committed to the candidate, who are excited about the candidate, and who will walk in the hot sun and knock on their neighbor’s doors,” he said.
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Though the Biden campaign has remained indoors until this month, other groups have been holding in-person initiatives throughout the year.
“If we don’t do this for our community, no one else will,” said Pastor Donna Foster, an organizer with the non-profit Black Mothers Forum in Phoenix, Arizona. The forum set up voter registration stations next to drive-through food distribution centers, where more people have visited due to economic distress during the pandemic.
Also in Phoenix, the non-profit Mi Familia Vota has been engaged in a decade-long effort to turn out the Latino vote. When the pandemic hit, the group’s civic engagement director said canvassers focused on reaching people by phone – but were only able to reach about 2% of everyone they called, on a good day.
In August, they started knocking on doors again. “And suddenly we started reaching maybe a quarter of people,” Madero said. “It’s just more effective.”
Every day, canvassers, wearing masks for protection, have gathered at the organization’s downtown Phoenix headquarters, where they have their temperatures checked and fill out a health screening form, before being presented with a massive yellow sticker that reads “I’ve been screened”. Yvette Romero, 27, said she wasn’t always very engaged in politics, but decided to work as a canvasser this year after seeing her community devastated by coronavirus and degraded by anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from those in power.
“We don’t tell people how to vote when we sign them up,” Romero said. “But we just present them with options. And I tell people it’s important for us to vote to support and protect those who can’t vote.”
With just one month left until election day, both campaigns are attempting to capture every possible vote, particularly in critical states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Time will tell if Biden’s last stretch of canvassing will have an impact on the election – especially since he saw record donations prior to the campaign’s announcement that it will send out volunteers. Or if the so-called shy voters will respond to Trump’s ongoing ground game as they did in 2016.
But at the very least, Stipanovach said, the new door-to-door effort will send a message.
“That creates an ambiance, if you will, of the whole campaign that things are happening, there’s momentum, we’re winning,” he said.