Amid anxiety about the loss of a valuable election-year tool, an increasing number of Democrats are ignoring Biden’s lead and resuming traditional door-to-door canvassing.
Senate candidate Sara Gideon speaks to the media near a polling station July 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine. | AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Democrat Sara Gideon’s campaign is knocking on voters’ doors in her close Senate race in Maine. So is Steve Bullock in Montana, another one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests. Democratic candidates in state legislative races in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Louisiana are doing the same.
For months, down-ballot Democrats followed Joe Biden’s lead and stopped door-to-door campaigning in an effort to prevent people from catching Covid-19 and appear more socially responsible than Republicans. President Donald Trump’s campaign and other GOP candidates, by contrast, have downplayed the pandemic and been knocking on voters’ doors for months.
But with anxiety growing in the final sprint before Election Day, an increasing number of Democrats up and down the ballot are making the call to stop ceding voters’ doors to the GOP — a decision that could increase pressure on Biden’s campaign to restart the traditional election-year practice. Democratic candidates who have returned to canvassing said they are adhering to strict safety protocols, as well as asking voters if they are comfortable with their presence.
“The campaign is knocking, but it’s entirely volunteer for staff and volunteers,” said Matt McKenna, a spokesperson for Bullock’s campaign. “Everyone is wearing masks and taking every precaution.”
Fearful that they might be out-organized by Trump’s campaign — aides to the president have bragged that they are knocking on 1 million doors a week nationwide — some outside groups have pressed Biden’s campaign to hit doors again. But if the campaign resumed, Biden could open himself up to criticism: It would be an implicit admission that he thinks the public health crisis has eased after making Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus the centerpiece of his campaign.
“While you might hear our opponent spend a lot of time talking about the millions of door knocks or attempts that they’re making week to week, those metrics actually don’t have any impact on reaching voters,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, said during a call with reporters earlier this month. “Our metric of success, the numbers we look at and use, are conversations [with voters].”
Even so, canvassing has been a constant topic of debate among Democrats in recent weeks. In calls between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its “frontline” candidates — those vying for the most competitive seats in the country — some campaigns are bringing up door-knocking nearly every week, said a person familiar with the talks. The candidates have expressed concerns about the DCCC’s decision to avoid door-knocking, the source said. Some campaigns are looking to restart canvassing in the final stretch regardless of what the Biden campaign does, according to one Democratic campaign official.
The DCCC told POLITICO that resuming door-knocking requires an approach that you can replicate everywhere, from the suburbs of Cincinnati to a Native American reservation in Montana.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden departs after speaking about climate change and wildfires affecting western states, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) | AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
In-person campaigning was one of the subjects of a private call last week in Pennsylvania between Biden campaign officials and state party leaders. In a sign of the party’s mounting anxiety over the issue, Democrats in the critical battleground state left the call with wildly different interpretations of the conversation.
Some top state party officials told POLITICO after the call that the Biden team discussed the possibility of a return to door-knocking, though it had not made any final decisions. But Biden aides insisted they are not considering that and that there must have been a misunderstanding: They said they only talked about plans to begin door-to-door literature drops — essentially canvassing, but with more limited, if any, human contact — and open distribution centers where people can pick up signs and other campaign materials.
“If you asked anybody off the record from the Biden campaign, I think they’d be like ‘Yeah, we want to be on doors.’ The reality is we still have a pandemic going on,” said Jason Henry, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, afterward. “Those conversations are still being had because we want to make sure we do this safely.”
Some Pennsylvania Democrats are not waiting for Biden’s imprimatur and have taken matters into their own hands. The Democratic Party in Erie County, Pa. — a key area that Trump won in 2016 after former President Barack Obama carried it four years earlier — said it has engaged in what it calls “soft talk” with voters while dropping off literature and materials at their homes.
“Folks will come out and talk to us and I feel like it’s a more fruitful conversation,” said Jim Wertz, chair of the Erie County Democrats. “They come out and talk to us about Joe Biden and how do I get signs.”
The Maine Democratic Party field staff is also doing some limited door-knocking with public health precautions in place, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and keeping more than six feet of distance from the doors after knocking, said a spokesperson for Gideon’s campaign, which, by tradition, coordinates its field program through the state party. The Montana Democratic Party is doing door-to-door campaigning as well.
Julie Slomski, a state Senate candidate seeking to flip a red seat in Pennsylvania, said she wears a mask, uses hand sanitizer, rings doorbells with her knuckles and stays 12 steps away while door-knocking. She said she always asks voters if they are comfortable with her being there when she greets them.
“I haven’t had anybody say no yet,” she said. “I start off with, ‘How have you been during the pandemic? Is there anything we can do to help connect some dots?’ Some folks say they might need some masks and I purchase them masks.”
Ryan Bizzarro, a state representative running for reelection in an Erie County, Pa., district that Trump won in 2016, said his campaign resumed door-knocking with multiple safety precautions more than a month ago.
“I think running a virtual campaign is important,” he said. “But … on Nov. 3, I don’t want there to be a, ‘What if? What if I would have been on the ground? What if?’ I don’t want that.”
In the swing state of Wisconsin, Lee Snodgrass — one of the state party’s vice chairs also running for the state assembly — has also been knocking on doors herself. “Voter contact is how you get votes,” she told her local NPR affiliate.
For many Democrats, though, door-knocking remains a fraught topic. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party did not respond to repeated questions about whether its coordinated campaign supporting Biden and down-ballot candidates is discussing the possibility of door-knocking again. Some congressional candidates likewise did not respond to inquiries about their plans.
The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee said they knocked on 150,000 doors in Pennsylvania last week alone, for a total of 1 million since it restarted canvassing there in mid-June. The campaign also claims to have knocked on 14 million doors in targeted states since that period amid the pandemic, with many volunteers posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #leadright. Some media reports have raised questions about the veracity of the Trump team’s door-knocking assertions, however.
The RNC declined to say whether any field staffers or volunteers have tested positive for Covid-19, but said every staff member is provided an eight-page document of health protocols, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The committee said it provides canvassers with masks and encourages them to take a few steps back after knocking on doors. A spokesperson added that the committee has spent over $100,000 on personal protective equipment and office cleaning.
News – Down-ballot Dems split from Biden on door-knocking