Last week, buried in a New York Times report on Joe Biden’s front-running yet listless campaign, was a brief account of nervous Democrats in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Biden’s limited presence had so unnerved Democratic leaders there that they had taken it upon themselves to go door-to-door distributing campaign signs, dropping off literature, and interacting with voters. “If you complain as much as I do and you beat on the doors of the national campaign, they’re eventually going to respond to you,” Ryan Bizzarro, a state representative from the county, told the Times.
Across America, in the pivotal swing states that will determine the outcome of the 2020 election, the story is the same: Biden’s campaign has abdicated the ground game to Donald Trump, largely forgoing door-knocking and in-person campaign events for a barrage of phone-banking and text-banking, as well as digital and TV ads. The approach, coming in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, is, at first blush, understandable. Two hundred thousand Americans have died from the coronavirus, and infections and death continue. In the context of this hellish year, door-knocking almost feels frivolous.
That was the argument Amanda Litman, the founder of Run for Something, made on Twitter last week, calling door-knocking during a pandemic “dangerous and unethical.”
“I hope every Democrat doing so stops ASAP,” she tweeted.
Litman’s tweet came in response to a Politico story about the genuine divide among Democrats when it comes to door-to-door canvassing. Democratic Senate candidates, including Steve Bullock and Sara Gideon, have resumed knocking on doors. The Biden campaign’s refusal to engage in any kind of serious in-person campaign activity may soon make it an outlier, with a little over a month to go until Election Day.
The Biden camp’s strategy got a boost this week: a Politico/Morning Consult poll found just 28 percent say they are comfortable being contacted in person by campaign volunteers. Before coronavirus, voters expressed more comfort with the concept, though more still said they’d rather not be contacted in person: 42 percent supported personal contact, while 47 percent were against it, according to the poll.
The idea of meeting a stranger at your door, however, is often more alarming than the reality. It’s possible voters who declare they don’t want to be contacted in person would still, if the door-knocker is there and ready to talk, stand in the doorway and listen. Good campaigns are trained to overcome this resistance and reach people who may otherwise not want to interact with a canvasser at all.
Door-knocking carries the possibility of transmitting coronavirus. So does entering a supermarket, dining indoors, sitting in a movie theater, and meeting friends at the park. Mass protests against police brutality, as important as they are, can carry risks if masks aren’t worn properly. It’s unclear what makes in-person canvassing, when conducted with reasonable precautions, more dangerous than activities Americans have been engaging in for months now.
What we’ve learned about coronavirus is that it’s less likely to spread outdoors, and that masks, along with social distancing, can greatly mitigate risk. While Biden cedes the ground to Trump, other campaigns are learning that canvassers, properly masked, can have safe conversation with voters more than six feet away. Beyond the political firmament, US census workers have resumed door-to-door activities, uneventfully tabulating households in-person.
There is an argument to make that door-knocking can only accomplish so much in a highly polarized presidential campaign in which very few voters are undecided. Political scientists are not entirely convinced of its efficacy, though most political organizers believe there is no substitute for human interaction. While knocking on doors can be inefficient and expensive — a good canvass is paid for, and not everyone will be home during a shift — the face-to-face interactions that are had can be meaningful, either changing a mind or at least convincing the person to come out and vote. Texts can be easily ignored. So can phone calls, particularly in an age of relentless spam calling. A canvasser, once the door is open and eye contact has been made, cannot be so readily blown off.
Can the Biden campaign win with a virtually nonexistent ground game? Yes. Biden’s polling lead has remained durable because so many Democrats despise Trump and are eager to vote against him. This is the apotheosis of negative polarization, an election hinging almost entirely on the resentment of one figure. But the Democratic Party, once again, is sleepwalking into longer-term defeat in exchange for a moral high ground.
Counties like Erie must be organized for the future, when revulsion of Trump won’t be enough to power Democrats to victory. Under a President Biden, the past specter of Trump can only be invoked for so long; at some point, voters will again need to be motivated, particularly in off years when turnout plummets and Republicans seize control of the House and Senate.
Local Democratic Party organizations understand that presidential races are singular opportunities to organize new voters. Attention to politics reaches an apex that won’t be matched again for four years. Every day that passes without a Biden volunteer or canvasser walking a neighborhood, safely masked, is a lost day to reach a person who has not engaged with the political process before and may never again. For years, Republicans have been out-organizing Democrats in counties like Erie.
If Democrats are able to capture the White House and the Senate, there is still the possibility that Republicans will control a majority of statehouses in America. This remarkable fact directly correlates with the lackadaisical, self-satisfied approach Democratic elites took to campaigns in the Obama years and are again repeating with Biden 2020, which has become a plodding vessel devoid of any extant rationale beyond defeating Trump and pretending the savage forces that made his victory possible never existed in the first place.
For now, Biden’s tepid approach may land him in the White House. Some will accede to fresh cries that meeting voters face-to-face is overrated anyway, now that we’re all trapped behind our screens, fidgeting in the glare of Zoom. Perhaps all of it is. But what if the election, somehow, is again decided by miniscule margins, as it was in 2016? What if it’s a few thousand voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan who decide whether Trump has four more years to cement right-wing dominance of the United States for a generation?
Biden is gambling on the fact that anti-Trump rage is enough. If it is not, every Democrat will be left to wonder how much more could have been done in the summer and fall, when local leaders finally took it upon themselves to campaign.
Knocking on a door with a mask, standing six feet back, and having a conversation isn’t an act of decadence or violence. The longer the Biden campaign pretends it is, the more Republicans can have counties like Erie to themselves.