Convinced they can do it safely and under pressure to match Republicans, a selection of Democratic-aligned groups are moving ahead with plans to restart their door-to-door voter canvassing operations, even amid a pandemic that has largely halted in-person campaigning since the spring.
Not everyone in the party is convinced it’s a good idea.
Working America, a political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, plans to partially resume its canvassing effort next month to help elect Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats, according to executive director Matt Morrison, with a test run in Michigan before expanding to other locations across the country if all goes well.
It’s joined by another group, the Progressive Turnout Project, which this past weekend began sending volunteers and staffers to knock on doors in Colorado and plans to expand to seven additional states this coming weekend.
Officials with both organizations say they are taking significant steps to make sure the effort, which traditionally involves sending a volunteer to the home of a prospective voter and having a face-to-face conversation with them about the upcoming election, doesn’t spread the coronavirus.
But they also emphasized that they feel compelled to to restart this specific kind of voter outreach, saying a series of recent crises and subsequent response from the White House have redoubled their conviction that Democrats must defeat President Donald Trump this fall — and that face-to-face communication with voters is an irreplaceable part of doing so.
“It feels, quite frankly, more urgent now,” said Morrison, adding that the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death helped re-commit his group to the effort.
“Not only has our resolve strengthened, but our conviction that engaging folks requires a personal touch has grown,” he added.
Not every Democratic group is as dead-on on starting canvassing again: Biden’s campaign, for one, has no immediate plans to return to that kind of direct voter outreach, though officials with the campaign say they haven’t ruled out doing so in the future, depending on guidance from public health experts.
At a virtual fundraiser Tuesday, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said that door knocking used to be the “gold standard”, but that “in a COVID reality and a global pandemic it is not the gold standard,” according to a pool report. She added that she hopes the campaign can engage voters in other ways.
Officials with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also say they are exploring options to safely restart door-knocking, but have yet to set a concrete date for its return.
But officials with the Progressive Turnout Project and Working America say they’re also in part responding to the Trump campaign, which this month began sending volunteers back into neighborhoods in key states.
“We were always committed to getting back on the doors,” said Kait Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Turnout Project. “It’s clear that democracy and elections don’t stop for a pandemic and direct face-to-face voter contact is an integral part of that.”
Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said the re-election effort attempted 330,000 at-the-door contacts last week alone.
“That number will continue to grow as more states and more cities and more towns become open for those kinds of activities,” Gorka said.
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Risk and reward
Inside the Democratic Party, leaders and strategists have debated for months when they should begin canvassing again — or if doing so would ever be worth the risk.
For candidates, sending volunteers door to door could anger voters who would resent being asked to interact with strangers at their home. In a worst-case scenario, a campaign whose voter outreach effort actually spread the virus could face enormous political repercussions.
Other Democrats say that while face-to-face conversations with voters are politically potent, campaigns and organizations can do much of the same work digitally, through phone calls, or text messages. The opportunity to reach out online has expanded since the pandemic too, as people are spending more time on their phones or computers than ever before, strategists say.
Political organizations aligned with both parties spent the spring beefing up its digital organizing efforts, and officials with them continue to say that will play a bigger role in 2020 than in any previous campaign, regardless of the outcome of the pandemic.
But for some strategists, that opportunity has led them to conclude that in-person canvassing efforts shouldn’t happen this year in any form.
“If I was an organizing director right now, I would not be able to justify the risk that it would mean both for the safety of our volunteers but also the safety of people whose houses we’re walking up to,” said Greta Carnes, who served as the national organizing director for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.
Carnes conceded that not conducting in-person outreach will somewhat diminish campaigns’ ability to reach out to all voters. But she said these aren’t normal times.
“There is a place for knocking doors,” Carnes said. “The place is not this year.”
Officials at groups like the Progressive Turnout Project and Working America reject the idea that in-person voter communication isn’t still essential.
“Phone calls and digital organizing are really important, but they’re also easy to overlook,” said Sweeney, the Progressive Turnout Project spokeswoman. “You can scroll past the digital ad. It’s a lot harder to miss someone coming to your door to have a conversation with you.”
The Progressive Turnout Project focuses on turning out voters who lean left but don’t participate in many elections, including many voters of color.
Both organizations say they have undertaken a thorough review of their canvassing procedures, changing them to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Sweeney said Progressive Turnout Project canvassers, for example, hand campaign literature to voters in a sealed plastic bag, stand six feet away while talking to them, and have hand sanitizer or wipes with them.
“We’re not requiring mandatory testing,” said Sweeney, who said the Progressive Turnout Project consulted with an infectious disease expert to establish their guidelines. “But we have instructed our staff that if anyone feels ill, if they’re showing any symptoms, we put them on paid leave. We instruct them to go get tested.”
Morrison, Working America’s executive director, said his group has arranged to purchase plexiglass masks for its canvassers, and unlike previous years, they are under strict instructions not to enter anyone’s house for any reason. He says that when the group begins its trial run next month, it will examine everything from how canvassers transported themselves to neighborhoods to how to ensure they have access to bathrooms.
Morrison and Sweeney also said that above all, they’ll strictly adhere to the guidance of local officials on whether it’s safe to send people door to door in neighborhoods and listen to anyone on their teams who says they think it’s unsafe to continue with the operation.
Still, Morrison said the decline of coronavirus cases in some states — he specifically cited Michigan and Pennsylvania — made him think there was an opening to restart the field program. And with the additional safety precautions, he compared the risk of doing so to the risk people take shopping in a grocery store.
“The street protests have indicated just how willing people are to interact, especially from the security of their homes, behind a screen door,” he said.
Morrison conceded that he’s been asked frequently by other Democrats why they’re taking on any additional risk. He said his answer to them is always simple.
“Donald Trump can’t be president anymore,” Morrison said. “Honestly, what motivates everyone on the left is the severity of mismanagement of this office transcends partisan interest. We have to unelect him.”
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