Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
President Trump’s campaign says it knocks on a million doors a week. Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t knocked on doors to speak to voters in months. Instead of face-to-face meetings, Democrats focus on conversations they can have virtually.
“While you may hear our opponent spending a lot of time talking about the millions of knocking on the door or trying it out week after week, those metrics actually have no bearing on how we reach voters,” said Jen O., Biden ‘s campaign manager Malley Dillon, told reporters in a call last week, downplayed the marked inequality in knocking on doors. “Our metric of success, the numbers we look at and use, are conversations.”
In August, she said the Biden campaign had 2.6 million conversations with voters in battlefield states. These conversations were virtual, by phone or text message, or in person “when it’s safe and justified,” she said. (The campaign also intends to begin door-to-door visits soon, not for face-to-face meetings but to hand in campaign literature and voter education materials.)
The Democrats’ strategy of mostly organizing from home via laptops or cell phones and foregoing traditional door-to-door acquisition has been a bit untested, but they believe it will be more effective in a pandemic.
Democrats say they don’t knock on the door because safety is their top priority and they don’t want to put people at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“We think what voters are looking for right now is good leadership and that comes from the vice president and what he says, but it also comes from the campaign,” said Molly Ritner, assistant director of state for the Biden campaign.
And because of the pandemic, Ritner, like other Democrats, says that more Americans are at home, sometimes in isolation, on their devices, and ready to talk.
“We are finding that we can actually connect and reach more people than in previous cycles over the phone,” said Ritner.
“Knocking on the door is in our DNA”
But it’s not just the Biden campaign. The organization has changed for state democratic parties in major swing states and for a number of left-wing groups that would have helped Biden on the ground.
Both BlackPAC and Working America have between 10% and 20% of the paid organizational staff they had in 2016.
At this point in 2016, Working America, a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, had about 100,000 conversations a week with people on their levels. The group has had zero since they stopped knocking on the door in March.
“Knocking on the door is in our DNA. We believe that nothing – and the evidence supports it – is as effective as well-used personal interaction,” said Matt Morrison, group executive director. “That means what we’ve lost in texture and interaction face-to-face, we’ve tried to make up for in scale.”
Working America has built an army of volunteers – write letters, make calls, and send texts. And Morrison believes it will work. He says when the pandemic started, his group focused on convincing people to wear masks. They tracked people and, after their correspondence, noticed a significant increase in mask use because he believed they had established relationships.
“There is no opposition on the other side”
For Republicans, however, this is not an either-or operation. The Republican National Committee says it contacts millions of people by phone every week. But also their volunteers and organizers knock on the doors personally.
“Everything is one-sided on the floor,” said Joe Gruters, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “We do our many rallies, we do the bus tours, we do meet and greets. We do it personally. The difference is … there is no opposition on the other side.”
Gruters says it feels like the Biden physical campaign “doesn’t exist” in Florida. The “virtual stuff” helps, he says, but in his view, “there’s nothing that replaces the basic blocking and tackling of campaigns and that’s the pounding of the sidewalk that goes door to door.”
Team Trump uses the Obama book
In 2016, it was widely recognized that Hillary Clinton’s floor play was superior to the Trump makeshift operation. Yet in this cycle, it is the Trump team that brags about building “muscle field surgery” compared to Democrats who call it an almost exclusive “aerial warfare”.
The Trump team of Democrats models itself in an unusual role reversal. Staff have to read a book about Barack Obama’s field operation Trailblazer: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteer Transformed Campaigns in America.
One of the co-authors, Hahrie Han, was surprised to hear that her book has become a staple of the Trump campaign, and she says she isn’t sure the campaign gets its main message.
“So, on the Trump campaign, they read the book and then they say, ‘OK, like I have to go out and talk to people at the door.’ Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s part of a larger locking system, “said Han, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “On the field side, the work that matters most can often, in some ways, be the most invisible.”
What Han means is that it wasn’t just the tactical door knocking operation that made Obama’s team so successful; His campaign, she says, was adept at building relationships before even getting to the door.
Political scientists and campaign staff agree that face-to-face meetings at the door are a proven way to increase voter turnout slightly. But they add that these conversations are often poorly conducted.
David Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley has done extensive research on knocking doors and persuading campaigns. He says campaigns often exaggerate the extent to which they actually organize on the ground.
“The vast majority of people are not contacted at doors even in normal years,” he said. “Just knocking on the door doesn’t turn a voter out. It’s a conversation with a voter who turns out to be a voter.”
And Broockman says you can have this conversation over the phone. In fact, if you don’t have to go door-to-door, you can probably have more conversations because you save time.
But as for the big question of whether Democrats are disadvantaged in doing this work almost entirely over the phone rather than in person, Broockman says he’s not sure.
“I suspect it’s like one of the many other things in a campaign that is a little important, but it’s really unlikely that it will prove crucial to the whole thing,” he said.