Of the myriad ways the Covid-19 pandemic has altered the race for the presidency, none has raised Democrats’ hackles like the way it has caused campaigns — most notably that of former Vice President Joe Biden — to curtail the in-person events and traditional door-to-door voter outreach that have long been seen as a harbinger of success on Election Day.
Six months after unchecked spread of the virus forced most Americans from their offices and schools in mid-March, President Trump has more or less resumed what resembles a normal campaign schedule, complete with rallies (often held in open-air venues such as airport hangars). Yet Biden has largely eschewed in-person campaigning, save for events with limited numbers of attendees (often just a “pool” of reporters who feed details to the rest of the press corps) arranged to respect socially distancing guidelines with the help of circles marked on venue floors.
Top Democrats and sources familiar with the reasoning of those in Biden’s brain trust say the decision is meant to position the former Vice President as a model of leadership by example. To that end, the Biden campaign is not employing any in-person voter contact methods in the run-up to the election and is instead relying on an aggressive program of virtual phone-banking and peer-to-peer texting to drive turnout.
And while the Trump campaign and GOP House and Senate operations are knocking on doors over the five weeks remaining until Election Day, Biden’s virtual-only get-out-the-vote strategy will be the only game in town for most down-ballot Democrats. This has alarmed some insiders, who worry that the Democratic Party leadership’s desire to ensure no daylight between Biden and down-ballot candidates will result in ceding close races to Republicans.
“What I call it is unilateral disarmament,” said one adviser to a prominent Democrat-supporting Super PAC, who expressed dismay at how Democrats appeared to be choosing “the morally right thing” while running against a Republican Party that does not respect rules, norms, or laws.
“You have this situation now where one side is doing this one thing that really f**king matters… the in-person contact and face-to-face is the most valuable thing with candidates. Persuasion is impossible but for turnout, going to lower-propensity Democrats and [reminding them that the election is coming] really matters,” they said, adding that down-ballot candidates need to find a way around restrictions that the national party campaign committees have placed on the use of their funds for in-person canvassing.
According to a top Michigan Democratic Party official, that’s exactly what Wolverine State Democrats are doing.
“We’re a pretty productive state in terms of fundraising and we do quite well for ourselves,” said the official, who added that candidates running to flip the state legislature in Lansing were definitely talking to people in their communities.
“Those candidates have been out and will continue to be out all the way through Election Day,” she said. “I think that the benefits of door-knocking pay off in those types of races, and those candidates are out there doing it.”
One senior staffer with a Michigan candidate for the House of Representatives said the campaign he is working for is doing its best to respect people’s boundaries during the pandemic while still retaining some of the hallmarks of successful in-person campaigning.
Campaign volunteers have been given extensive training and personal protective equipment and are being sent out with “sticky notes” with space for personalized, hand-written messages to leave on voters’ doors, he said.
“Nobody thinks that this is as effective as having a conversation on the front porch, but at the very least, it demonstrates to the voters that we care enough to take the time to come to them. It doesn't ask them to have face-to-face conversations that they might not be comfortable with or might put them or volunteers potentially in a riskier position,” he added.
The campaign staffer, a veteran of multiple election cycles, agreed with the importance of person-to-person voter contact, but said that unlike Trump, Democrats could not get away with breaking the written and unwritten rules that have come to regulate American life during the pandemic.
“It is a fact of life as a Democrat in politics that you have to be the grown-up, and [large-scale in-person campaigning] would hurt us with our voters and with the media coverage,” he said.
University of Virginia Center for Politics founder Larry Sabato agreed that Democrats have what he described as a “fetish for rules” that contrasts vividly with the GOP’s tendency to do whatever it takes to accomplish a task. He added that he was not sure whether large-scale, in-person campaigning or canvassing would make a difference outside of some warm-weather places such as Florida. However, he also cautioned that Biden’s and Democrats’ approaches to pandemic-era campaigning appeared to be bearing fruit with older voters — a group with which Biden is significantly outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 support levels — and noted the low number of undecided voters this election cycle.
“Take that 10 percent [shown in recent polling] and cut that in half… because if you're undecided about Donald Trump, at this point, you're not really clued into politics — you would have to have an opinion. It just tells me that virtually everybody knows for whom they're gonna vote, they've known it for a long time,” he said.
James Carville, the veteran Democratic consultant who helmed Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign — the last Democratic challenger to knock off a GOP incumbent President — also said the hand-wringing about the lack of canvassing, especially in Florida, is just that.
“It was a big brouhaha that the Republicans out-registered the Democrats in Florida, but if they got 58,000 new registers and the Democrats got 43,000, that’s 15,000 out of 10 million votes cast in Florida. It’s barely a rounding error,” he said. “You're not going to have a massive number of non-college white males changing their mind [because of canvassing]”.
But for Sabato, the most important question when it comes to scrapping in-person voter contact is what Democrats are doing instead of it.
“The real question is, what are they [Democrats] doing to substitute for in-person [canvassing]? Are they concentrating those financial resources in a way that could maximize a non-in-person strategy?” he asked.
An answer to that question could be found in Wisconsin, one of several states Trump flipped to claim victory in 2016. One top Democrat there, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wilker, said the fears of giving up ground to Republicans by keeping the 2020 campaign virtual are overblown based on his experience with Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court election earlier this year.
That election, held the same day as the state’s presidential primary, took place just a few weeks into the pandemic, and resulted in an unexpected landslide victory for Democrat-backed candidate Jill Karofsky despite what Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez called “voter suppression on steroids”.
“In the spring Supreme Court election — which was the only statewide general election to take place as the coronavirus hit — we took a gamble and tested a campaign that was entirely virtual, focused on helping people vote, primarily absentee or curbside, and it really worked,” Wikler said in a phone interview. “We had been building an operation to knock on doors on a scale the state had never seen, but we completely switched tacks. And we can see the impact of our virtual organizing on the people that we contacted in terms of the chance that they actually did successfully cast an absentee ballot.”
Wikler said his party’s efforts worked because of the wide gap in how Democrats and Republicans view the Covid-19 pandemic and the public health measures meant to mitigate it.
“There's just a huge difference between the Republican electorate and the Democratic electorate this cycle. If Republicans want to win over swing voters who are concerned that the President doesn't take coronavirus seriously by getting up in their faces on the doorstep without warning, that’s a terrible way to it — but if you're trying to mobilize people who are attending anti-mask protests, in-person campaigning is probably just the ticket,” he said.
But because of the outside influence of the pandemic on this year’s race — and because Trump so dominates the national conversation — Carville said it’s unlikely that any of the things Democrats are getting worked up about will make much of a difference in the end, because the cake is already baked.
“Right now, this thing is on a trajectory to be a pretty historic blowout,” he said. “It’s hard to be honest and not be optimistic if you’re a Democrat.”