After abandoning their ground game for much of 2020 because of the pandemic, Democrats across the country are back knocking on doors.
Though Covid-19 is still afflicting the nation, Democrats in all three of the upcoming gubernatorial contests — in the California recall this week, and in Virginia and New Jersey in November — have extensive field operations, as do down-ballot candidates and battleground state parties preparing for competitive 2022 elections.
It is a notable shift from last year’s elections, when then-candidate Joe Biden held off deploying field staffers until about a month before the election amid concerns about the coronavirus, while Republicans largely continued field work as normal. After a disappointing year down-ballot, Democrats say they can’t leave anything to chance with competitive off-year elections this fall — especially in Virginia, which has long been considered a bellwether where the gubernatorial contest has almost always cut against the party in the White House.
“We don’t have the luxury to not knock on doors, because these elections are going to be decided on turnout,” said Virginia Democratic state Del. Elizabeth Guzman, who flipped her seat in 2017 and briefly ran for lieutenant governor earlier this year.
The Virginia Democratic coordinated campaign, a joint effort between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign, other statewide and local Democrats and the state party, said it has knocked on 200,000 doors since the beginning of the summer, which is the same pace as its pre-pandemic efforts for the 2017 election.
The efforts are an end to the asymmetric field work that happened in 2020. Republicans, too, have robust field operations. In Virginia, the Republican National Committee dispatched over 100 field staffers in the state, POLITICO previously reported, and the state coordinated campaign said it has hit nearly 250,000 doors.
The return to the doors for Democrats comes even with a surge of coronavirus cases, especially among unvaccinated Americans, due to the Delta variant. But Democrats say that there is a key difference between this and last summer: vaccines.
“Basically every single study that comes out about the most meaningful conversations you can have with a voter is going to be face-to-face at the door,” said Brooklynne Mosley, the coordinated campaign director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. “That impacted our decision to want to be able to talk to voters, and just based on Jersey having high vaccination rates and us taking precautions to make sure our staff and volunteers are safe.”
“We understand that outdoor settings — which if you think about most field work, it tends to be outdoors — are generally safer,” added Virginia state Del. Dan Helmer, a Democrat who flipped a state House seat in 2019 and is running for reelection this year.
In California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom appears increasingly likely to defeat this week’s recall election, his campaign this summer mounted what it said was the largest in-person get-out-the-vote operation in state history, with more than 600 paid field staff. They are wearing masks while door-knocking and at campaign events.
Democrats stressed that they were still cognizant of the ongoing pandemic during their field work. And they are, in fact, campaigning on the pandemic — and mask and vaccine mandates that poll well. In Virginia, McAuliffe recently released a TV ad attacking his Republican opponent, saying “like Donald Trump, Glenn Youngkin refuses to take coronavirus seriously.”
McAuliffe also praised Biden on Thursday for mandating vaccines for federal employees — a significant part of the Northern Virginia electorate — and called for schools and businesses to do the same. Youngkin, who is himself vaccinated and calls for others to get it, has cast mandates as an overreach. He also frequently campaigns against school closures.
While the parties’ ground games are in full swing, both Democrats and Republicans say they’ve learned from the past year-and-a-half. Virginia Republicans, too, say they remind field staffers to be “respectful” of homeowners who want door-knockers to keep their distance.
And Democrats increasingly see door-knocking, Guzman said, as a prime opportunity to reach voters to make sure they can be communicated with in the language that they’re most comfortable with.
“We don’t leave any voter behind,” said Guzman, who is also a co-chair of Todos con Terry, the campaign’s outreach effort for Latino voters. “We try to be sensitive, as well, of the languages that are spoken and how voters feel more comfortable about talking about the election.”
Beyond the three states with off-year elections, Democrats have also gotten an early jump on field work in states that will be critical in the fight for control of Washington in 2022 and beyond.
In Wisconsin, where Democrats went fully virtual as Covid raged ahead of the 2020 election, state Democrats last month were back knocking on doors, canvassing in neighborhoods around the state. Staffers are required to be vaccinated, and staffers and volunteers are required to wear masks and, after knocking on a door, to step back six feet.
“If you look at the numbers in Wisconsin in the fall of 2020, when no one was vaccinated and we had one of the biggest outbreaks in the country, it made sense to not knock on doors,” said Ben Wikler, the state Democratic Party chair. Wisconsin Democrats are defending first-term Gov. Tony Evers and trying to oust GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who holds one of two Republican-held Senate seats in states Biden won in 2020.
However, Wikler said, there are likely thousands of sporadic Democratic voters who likely never answered a phone or looked at a text message and who Democrats can now reach in person. One advantage of the shift to virtual organizing last year, he said, is that the party now has a stable of organizers who are familiar not only with door-to-door canvassing, but with virtual tools used less frequently before.
“One upside of how we adapted to the pandemic is that we have a larger arsenal of volunteers who are familiar with more, different tactics,” he said. “You’re more likely to reach somebody if you try different things.”
Matt Friedman contributed to this report.
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