Adam Barbanel-Fried is the director of Changing the Conversation Together, a group that does something called “deep canvassing” in Pennsylvania, targeting infrequent voters who lean Democratic.
The idea behind deep canvassing is that people are more responsive to emotions than campaign issues, so persuasion requires getting them to open up about their lives and those closest to them. A well-trained deep canvasser, Barbanel-Fried said, can have an emotionally and politically meaningful exchange in 10 or 15 minutes.
The coronavirus pandemic put Changing the Conversation Together’s work on hold, but over the last few weeks the group has restarted with tight safety protocols. Volunteers take coronavirus tests before and after each canvass. They wear masks and have extras on hand to give to those they speak to. It’s a lot of work, but Barbanel-Fried believes the results are worth it. “When we’re reaching out to infrequent voters, they are really hard to find on the phone,” he said.
Walking the streets, Barbanel-Fried sees little sign of Joe Biden’s campaign, and that terrifies him. Democrats have historically prided themselves on their so-called ground game, but because of Covid, the Biden campaign has very few rallies and no canvassing operation. Barbanel-Fried worries that Democrats “are running basically a giant experiment,” trying to win a presidential race with almost no physical presence.
He’s far from the only Democrat freaking out right now. The juxtaposition of Donald Trump’s “loud and proud campaign and Biden’s invisible digital operation makes some Democrats increasingly anxious,” Time’s Charlotte Alter wrote of Michigan. The New York Times reported on Democrats in battleground states urging Biden to “intensify in-person outreach.”
Given the apocalyptic stakes in this election, I’ve been scared about this too. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s data-driven presidential campaign ignored political realities on the ground, a mistake from which the Republic may never recover. Biden may be ahead in the polls, but as of this writing FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 24 percent chance of winning — better than Russian roulette odds. If there’s anything else Democrats could be doing, shouldn’t they be doing it?
But after I called a few Democrats who know a lot about grass-roots organizing, I started to feel more sanguine. Some of the state leaders who helped rebuild the party after 2016 say Biden’s campaign is far more responsive than Clinton’s was. They’d like to be talking to voters in person but think what’s happening on the phone and online is enough, even if it’s not visible to outside observers.
Four years ago, Lavora Barnes, then the chief operating officer of the Michigan Democratic Party, was, as she said, “one of the folks trying to raise alarms up the chain” about Clinton’s weakness in the state. “It did not feel right on the ground here in Michigan,” she told me. “We could tell that we were in trouble.” The Clinton campaign, she said, would respond, “The model said we look good.”
Barnes, who is now the state Democratic Party chair, said there’s no similar disconnect with the Biden campaign. “We feel very good about where we are,” she said. “Yes, we would love a world where we could be out on the doors, unmasked, the way we would have been in 2016 had we had an operation like the one we have right now. But we can’t, because of this pandemic. So we are doing everything we can do and more.”
The Trump campaign, of course, has people knocking on doors despite the pandemic, which can seem like an unnerving asymmetry. But it’s not entirely clear how big the Trump grass-roots operation really is. Though the campaign claims to be knocking on over a million doors a week, when New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi went to see Trump’s ground game in action in Pennsylvania last month, she repeatedly showed up for volunteer trainings only to find no one else there.
But even if there were floods of Trump door-knockers, Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said Democrats need different tactics because they have different voters. “If you’re talking to Republican voters who don’t think coronavirus is real, they’re delighted to have you come knock on their door,” Wikler said. “If you’re talking to someone who’s limiting their children’s contact with grandparents to avoid spreading the disease, showing up unannounced in person would provoke people.”
Instead, the Biden team is relying on phone calls, postcards and texts as well as other forms of digital outreach. There’s a feature on the campaign app that will search your contacts to find everyone you know in swing states, and let you reach out to them with a click.
Such digital communication might not feel as satisfying as a face-to-face conversation, but there’s data to suggest it can work about as well; political scientists have never been as enamored of canvassing as organizers are. As Dylan Matthews wrote recently in Vox, “There’s a growing body of research suggesting that methods like calling voters and ‘relational’ voter turnout seem to be as effective — if not more effective — than traditional door-knocking.” (“Relational” organizing means building on pre-existing relationships, like the Biden app does.)
“People are scared and they’re worried,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, told me. “And I know that. And I know that this is super hard, and there’s an assumption by the media and people at large that because they’re not seeing the same things in the same way as before that that is fundamentally a problem for us.”
But she argues that a campaign in a pandemic simply can’t look like campaigns did before — at least, not if the campaign actually cares about its people. “What is most important is the conversation and the engagement,” she said. “It is not the tactic that gets to the engagement. That’s how we’re building the program and reaching voters every day.”
It’s hard to trust what you can’t see. But in the end there may be no way to run a campaign in 2020 that’s not a giant experiment.
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