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Pandemic politics in the final stretch

Politics | Biden supporters campaign in person but not up close
by Harvest Prude
Posted 10/15/20, 02:11 pm

When it comes to campaigning and the coronavirus, President Donald Trump accuses his Democratic opponent Joe Biden of hiding out in his basement, while Biden charges the president with putting those around him at risk. Their different approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic have trickled down to the frontlines of their national campaigns, too.

“The GOP, they don’t believe in the pandemic. They doorknock,” said Ed Bruley, the Macomb County, Mich., Democratic Party chairman. “Everyone has a different approach, and we reflect our candidate.”

But after avoiding in-person contact for much of the presidential campaign, Biden’s camp is shifting its strategy. At the beginning of October, it announced the launch of door-to-door canvassing in battleground states like Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Studies have found that in-person contact mobilizes voters, but Democratic operatives worry the age-old strategy could backfire during the pandemic.

Past political studies have found that among mailings, phone calls, and a face-to-face visit from a canvasser, the latter encourages voter turnout the most. There is less evidence to show that in-person canvassing changes people’s minds on how to vote, but it may give them the boost they need to get to the polls. Florida Atlantic University professor David Niven found in a 2004 study that face-to-face contact had the most effect on intermittent voters, increasing their likelihood of voting by 13 percentage points.

A field experiment in 1998 by professors Alan Gerber and Don Green of Yale University found that one in-person conversation boosted turnout by about 20 percent. Direct mail efforts and telephone calls had less effect. Gerber and Green went on to write a book in 2019, Get Out the Vote, in which they continued to argue that “the more personal the interaction between campaign and potential voter, the more it raises a person’s chances of voting. Door-to-door canvassing by enthusiastic volunteers is the gold-standard mobilization tactic.”

Those experiments did not account for a global pandemic overturning the norms of person-to-person engagement. In places like Mason County, Mich., canvassing may not mean talking to voters face-to-face at all.

Mason County Democratic Party chairman Ed Miller said voter enthusiasm is high for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris.

“We just put 450 signs just for the Biden-Harris campaign in Mason alone,” Miller said. A coordinator from the Biden campaign helped shape the local strategy.

“Most of our Democrats … are older and more susceptible to the [coronavirus] so we want to use all of the precautions that we can,” Miller said.

Volunteers have left bags of flyers, including a roster of local, state, and national Democratic candidates, as well as information on how to vote early at peoples’ homes. What they have not done, however, is ring the doorbell and wait to talk to those inside.

According to RealClearPolitics, Biden leads in Michigan polls by an average of 7 points. The Biden campaign told Time magazine that its digital field operations have far exceeded the efforts of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the state, reaching 1.4 million voters during the week of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Meanwhile, Republicans have carried out traditional field operations. The Republican National Committee said GOP volunteers have knocked on 1 million doors a week. The Trump campaign has knocked on more than 19 million doors.

“For months, Joe Biden and his campaign suggested door-knocking would put people ‘in harm’s way’ and defended the fact they’d knocked on zero doors, suggesting it ‘doesn’t really matter,’ while President Trump’s campaign was the only one asking Americans for their vote in person,” said Samantha Zagar, the Trump campaign’s deputy national press secretary. “While the science of coronavirus hasn’t changed, the Biden campaign’s strategy quickly did. … Now that Biden realized he can’t win an election from his basement, his campaign’s hypocrisy is on full display.”

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden’s spokespeople have said for weeks that they have not ceded the president an advantage by conducting a campaign without face-to-face engagement. Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon said the strategy change “puts the safety of communities first and foremost and helps us mobilize voters who are harder to reach by phone now that we’re in the final stretch.”

But some local Democrats have said that the campaign should be more aggressive. Isabella County Democratic chairman Michael Heitman told Time that “Biden could absolutely do more.”

“We feel very comfortable that we’re reaching our voters,” O’Malley Dillon said in an interview with Politico. “But we also need to make sure we’re role modeling what’s safe.”


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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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