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Knocked off the doorsteps by the coronavirus, Democrats craft new plans to reach voters

The Democratic Party's grassroots campaign renaissance is facing an existential challenge ahead of the November election, with the sharpest tool in organizers' kits -- face-to-face meetings at potential voters' doorsteps -- blunted by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Gregory Krieg
Annie Grayer, CNN
CNN — The Democratic Party's grassroots campaign renaissance is facing an existential challenge ahead of the November election, with the sharpest tool in organizers' kits -- face-to-face meetings at potential voters' doorsteps -- blunted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as the political world has transferred much of its resources and energy, often with great fanfare, toward digital spaces, the analog tradition of meeting people in their homes still sits atop the pyramid of voter contact tactics. Door-knock canvassing has seen a revival over the past few years, as campaigns and political groups developed more precise, technologically advanced means of targeting not only undecided voters, but those who do not typically turn out -- a bloc that could decide tight races up and down the ballot.

But for most of this year, Democrats have largely stayed off the doorsteps, not wanting to endanger volunteers or those they might encounter. The tension surrounding that decision has been heightened by the knowledge that their Republican counterparts are making a different calculation. President Donald Trump's campaign, unlike Democratic nominee Joe Biden's, is ramping up its door-knocking operation as ballots begin to go out and early voting dates approach.

Progressives' angst over canvassing has been tempered in part over the last couple months as their efforts to fill the void have, according to leading organizers from a number of groups, shown signs of success. Voters have been more willing to pick up the phone and engage, they say, and the deep polarization of the Trump era has made political evangelists of Democrats who might have otherwise focused only on their own ballot.

Still, there is a sense among many on the left, for whom knocking doors is both a proven tactic and emblematic of their grassroots-first ethos, that there is no replacing face-to-face contacts.

"It's a real loss and I don't know that you can (make up for the loss)," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been trying to reach "nontraditional voters" through widely viewed online town halls, told CNN this summer. "I think that is something that virtual relationships cannot replace. But we are where we are -- we cannot endanger people's health."

Rise of the 'voter-influencer'

The nonpartisan American Civil Liberties Union has been at the forefront of the voting rights fight during Trump's time in office. With the President now openly seeking to suppress turnout and cast doubt on mail-in voting, it has dialed up its advocacy work.

But the coronavirus pandemic has circumscribed its field operations, keeping volunteers off the streets and forcing the organization to mine for new energy in familiar places.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who isn't deeply concerned about the inability to door-knock," said Tenicka Boyd, the ACLU's national organizing director and deputy political director. "That's who we are. We know that that face-to-face contact is one of the best ways to support people who were already voting, to reassure people, to encourage people to go vote."

Boyd told CNN that the ACLU has seen an upswing in engagement with phone calls and texting, a sign potential voters, too, are adjusting course in uncharted waters. She has also observed a proliferation of "voter-influencers," or politically engaged individuals pushing friends, family and neighbors to the polls through informal social exchanges.

"That word of mouth, that proximity is actually much more promising" than some other tactics, Boyd said. But it's also more difficult to track and can create a new set of challenges, mostly because "so much of your engagement and mobilization is relying on a really select few people."

Kevin Cate, a leading Democratic strategist in Florida, described a similar phenomenon -- one he believes should hearten his party's jittery pundit class.

"The lack of field worker, door-to-door conversations is more than made up by the friends and family conversations about the disaster of Donald Trump's response to Covid," Cate said.

The pandemic, he added, has grounded the election and made voters less susceptible to the sway of "sensationalized" faux controversies ginned up through paid media -- the kind that might require more direct and in-person talks to contextualize or push back against.

"What has happened with Covid is every conversation about the Trump administration, or the future of the country, is a conversation that friends and family are having with themselves," Cate said. "This is a unique situation where the conversations are actually happening organically on their own every single day, because it's a life-and-death situation for many people. And if it's not life-and-death, it's life-altering."

Door-knocking as a tactic, traditionally, serves two purposes: to persuade voters who are either undecided or open to reconsidering their initial preferences and, as is more often the case in big-ticket presidential contests, driving turnout.

Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University who co-authored the book, "Get Out the Vote," is unsure whether virtual canvassing will ever be as broadly effective as in-person, direct contacts and discussions.

"The thing that is slowly catching fire is mobilization within social networks" Green told CNN. "Friends aren't likely to block you. You're a trusted source. Your voice is, at least, heard."

What remains to be seen, he added, is the relative effectiveness of Sanders-style online forums. Reach is one issue; their ability to forge more intimate connections is another.

"The big unknown here," Green said, "is whether the one-to-one personal connection that drives the effect in a lot of these canvassing campaigns can work in this mass-produced event-driven mode."

Two campaigns, two different approaches

The parties' rank-and-file approaches to canvassing and voter outreach are reflective of the men at the top of their respective tickets. Trump, when he isn't talking up a coming vaccine or new therapeutics, behaves as if the pandemic has passed. He hosts rallies that don't require social distancing or mask-wearing and returned indoors for an event in Nevada on Sunday.

Biden, though he has begun to travel more, follows public health guidelines -- exhibiting a level of caution that comes across in his campaign's field tactics.

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has not tapped the brakes on its field program. According to spokesman Rick Gorka, it has 2,000 paid field staffers and 2 million volunteers operating across 17 states. For now at least, they have the doors to themselves, knocking on more than 3.3 million in competitive early-voting states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Carolina and Georgia. Biden's team is larger, with 2,500 paid staff, and covers a similar breadth of terrain -- 15 states plus swing swaths of Maine and Nebraska, which apportion their delegates by congressional district. But its organizers are not meeting voters face-to-face. Speaking to reporters recently, Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon, who has roots in field organizing, questioned how successful Trump's efforts have actually been.

"While you might hear our opponents spend a lot of time talking about the millions of door knocks or attempts that they're making week to week," she said, "those metrics actually don't have any impact on reaching voters."

What matters, O'Malley Dillon argued, isn't the number of knocks, but whether the potential voters on the other side of the door are activated.

"What we are focused on is a metric around quality conversations and actually engaging with people. That's virtual, that's over the phone, that's over the text, that is in-person when that is safe and is warranted," she said. "In just August alone, we had 2.6 million conversations with voters in our battleground states."

The absence of Biden field army has been apparent to Dallas Republicans, who told CNN they are, with safety precautions in place, reaching more voters in-person with a greater rate of success.

Dallas GOP communications director Will Busby said their rising connection rates were easy to explain: people are home and "desperate" for the kind of "human interaction" curtailed by the pandemic.

"If a stranger came to your door pre-Covid, well, you're busy, you've got soccer games, you've got church, you've got life, you've got community events. You don't want to answer that person at the door, so you tell them to leave the literature at the door," Busby said. "Now they're like, 'Hey, let's have a conversation, let's just visit. I want to talk to another human.'"

Republicans' willingness to continue those practices has rankled some Democrats, who describe it as another piece of evidence that Trump and the GOP are not taking the coronavirus seriously, or actively ignoring its dangers for potential political gain.

"Knocking on doors is a tactic, it is not a strategy. It is one way to establish human connection. It's one way to get your message out," said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. "And so, for anyone that is super committed to this one particular tactic, I question."

A voter registration and turnout group founded by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, the New Georgia Project said it is making approximately 100,000 voter contacts every week, while staying clear of the doors.

Ufot argued that campaigns and organizations, no matter their political stripes, that haven't changed their practices at a time when the coronavirus death toll continues to rise -- it is now approaching 200,000 in the US, with a disproportionately deadly effect on African Americans -- need to take a look in the mirror.

"You are committing, I would say, campaign malpractice or social justice movement malpractice, if you aren't taking this moment to figure out what other tactics to add to your repertoire, to make sure that the work continues, to make sure that the movement continues," Ufot said.

Turnout, turnout, turnout

Even some of the most dedicated grassroots Democratic campaigners, including at Justice Democrats, the trailblazing progressive organization that helped New York's Jamaal Bowman and Missouri's Cori Bush defeat powerful incumbents in primaries this summer, are asking whether the risks of door-knocking, an effective but not always efficient practice, outweigh the potential rewards under the current circumstances.

Justice Democrats campaigns director Ava Benezra acknowledged that the returns on even well-executed canvassing strategies diminishes in the context of a presidential campaign, especially one like this, which has consumed national media and will see hundreds of millions of dollars in paid advertising.

"We're just never going to be able to reach as many people and have as deep of conversations as we need to for that tactic to rise above, in importance, the massive amount of information that voters are receiving on TV and online," Benezra said.

And because such an overwhelming proportion of the country has hardened opinions of the candidates, making persuasion difficult and a drain on precious resources, the focus for the presidential campaigns and their allies -- especially among Democrats, for whom the narrow but decisive margins of 2016 weigh heavily on the mind -- boosting turnout is, increasingly, the primary goal.

"Everybody in America knows who Donald Trump is and who Joe Biden is, and they probably have an opinion and they probably know who they're going to vote for," said Progressive Turnout Project executive director Alex Morgan. "And it really does come down to the mobilization and turning out our voters again, regardless of the tactic, because we can feel really confident and come up short by 10,000 votes in Michigan and 30,000 votes in Wisconsin and 50,000 votes in Pennsylvania."

Morgan, whose group had been among those most deeply committed to door-to-door campaigning, has pivoted entirely to remote tactics ahead of November. PTP has pledged that its staff and volunteers will make 55 million phone calls into 18 states -- during which they'll offer to walk voters, step by step, through their local pandemic voting options -- and mail 500,000 handwritten letters by Election Day.

The group is also paying particular attention to down-ballot Democratic campaigns, from the Senate in contested states to local legislative contests. Those candidates, especially the lesser known challengers, are likely to suffer more from the absence of in-person canvassers.

"That's where education, regardless of whether you're running a persuasion or a turnout program, is really important," Morgan said. The PTP and other liberal organizations are partnering to compile and disseminate bespoke voter guides, which might get hung on a door knob, no face-to-face contact required, emailed or delivered by snail mail.

"We're still leaving it all on the field," Morgan said, "although via different tactics."

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