From her home in tiny Reedsburg, Wisconsin, Arlene Ketchpaw chatted with a half-dozen Sauk County Democrats about how to win over voters, her fellow volunteers staring out from a computer screen.
A day later, many Republicans found seats around tables in a strip mall campaign office in nearby Baraboo for training that included an element missing from the Democrats’ agenda: knocking on doors.
“Doors win campaigns,” Mickey Shelton, a Wisconsin organizer for President Donald Trump, told GOP volunteers in the county Trump carried by a scant 109 votes.
Shelton’s comment highlights the contrast between Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential battleground approach, almost entirely virtual, and that of Trump’s campaign, which insists that face-to-face voter contact is critical in the final stretch.
Democrats acknowledge they wish they could do more in-person campaigning, but say the pandemic has forced them to adapt. Theirs is an untested approach given that voting is so often influenced by personal connections.
But Republicans have their own challenge. Some voters are reluctant to open their doors to talk to someone during the pandemic. Still, they believe their voters are more likely to be receptive and that the risk is worth the reward.
In fact, Republicans are not merely doing door-knocking, but also holding scaled-back rallies, such as Trump’s in Oshkosh last week, where roughly 500 came to see him.
“We’ve got to be respectful of people’s views and we have to be careful with COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean don’t knock on a door,” Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said. “That means just do things a little bit different and take precautions.”
Republican congressional candidates around the country have largely followed suit.
One GOP group supporting U.S. House candidates is launching a door-knocking campaign aimed at capitalizing on the many Americans working from home.
Even in the sweltering Arizona sun, Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko from a GOP-heavy district outside of Phoenix said door-knocking was essential. Sporting Trump masks, Lesko and staff have spent weekends walking neighborhoods in hopes of motivating Trump supporters.
“Part of campaigning is going door to door and knocking on people’s doors,” she said. “When Democrats aren’t going door to door they miss the opportunity.”
Trump’s campaign is using its door-to-door effort in part to target those less frequent voters who support the president’s policies. Their strategy relies on maximizing that share rather than persuading undecided voters to vote for Trump.
Democrats have had to throw together a new plan in real time.
Since March, teams have sent text messages and called less reliable voters — risking at times angry replies and countless hang-ups — from their homes while mining for potential Democratic voters.
“While we are not engaging in some of the traditional pieces of a campaign like having a lot of campaign offices where volunteers are in and out, we’ve been able to simulate those same actions virtually, where, for instance, people can come in and out and jump on the phone and make calls with us in a community setting, but via Zoom,” Molly Ritner, Biden’s deputy director for state campaigns, said.
The all-virtual Democratic strategy is playing out nationwide, testing whether candidates can win without having knocked on a single door.
A March memo from the political arm of House Democrats reinforced the party’s unprecedented approach: “Everything the campaign and candidate does should keep COVID-19, people’s concerns and stressors front of mind.”
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