A number of Democratic elected officials, candidates and campaign operatives believe that the national party’s decision not to canvass and hold in-person campaign events until the final days of the general election hurt Democrats down-ballot.
In order to avoid exposing volunteers, staffers and voters to the coronavirus, the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden did not sanction door-to-door campaigning in battleground states until October.
House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, advised candidates against it and declined to finance any new hiring that campaigns conducted for the specific purpose of door-knocking. State parties and state legislative candidates, who frequently coordinated with the national party, generally steered clear of the practice as well.
Although the policy may have been ethically and scientifically wise, it cost Democrats at the ballot box, according to several Democrats in battleground states, who believe that face-to-face contact is more effective than reaching voters by phone or text. As members of the party spar over the ideological and messaging reasons for their failure to meet down-ballot expectations, the failure to knock on doors has become a regret shared by members of both the centrist and progressive wings of the party.
In the clearest sign the party is regretting its decision, Democrats in Georgia are leaving the door open to a door-knocking campaign in that state ahead of two runoff elections that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. One strategist in the state told HuffPost “safe door-knocking closer to Jan. 5 may be necessary to win.”
The effect of canvassing “may not be determinative, but in a close election, it can help you with a point or 2 points,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic campaign strategist who advised the party’s unsuccessful auditor general candidate, Nina Ahmad. “There’s really no substitute for the kind of effectiveness of direct communication with a voter.”
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said the lack of large-scale events and canvassing hurt Democratic candidates in his state, where Republicans swept statewide offices for the first time in decades and the party lost seats in the state legislature. Other Montana Democrats have said the lack of canvassing impeded the party’s ability to defend candidates from GOP attacks linking them to socialism and other unpopular left-wing ideas.
“Montana’s a state where people like to see their candidates and like to hear from them. The virus impeded that a lot,” Tester said. “I think we paid a price for that.”
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told HuffPost last Friday that national policies discouraging door-knocking and other in-person campaign events cost Democrats with Latino voters in particular.
“It’s very hard to do effective campaigning with Latinos unless you’re talking to them in person,” he said.
Former presidential and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas echoed this advice in an email to supporters on Thursday. “Nothing beats meeting your voters, eyeball to eyeball,” he wrote. “We should always find a way to canvass directly at the voter’s door.”
“The DCCC worked constantly and aggressively to find safe ways to reach voters.”
One national progressive strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the party’s tactics, said the decision also reinforced the working-class voters’ perception of Democratic candidates as elites whose economic lives were undisturbed by the pandemic.
“This is part of how we’ve become divorced from the working class,” the strategist said. “They had to get back to their jobs in two weeks’ time. It felt like we were well-to-do, like we were hiding behind a Zoom screen. That’s not a life that most working-class people can afford to engage in.”
The DCCC maintains that the alternative methods it developed for contacting voters ― through phone calls and text messages ― were highly effective. It said the campaigns of House Democratic candidates contacted 2 million voters by text message in the final weekend of the campaign.
“The DCCC worked constantly and aggressively to find safe ways to reach voters, including through our Virtual Action Center,” said DCCC communications director Cole Leiter. “Recognizing our responsibility to keep our volunteers, voters, and staff safe, the DCCC approached in-person canvassing with the extreme caution that is necessary during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.”
The impact of the protocol against canvassing was more acute for candidates running for Congress or state legislature, because coverage of Biden’s campaign and his saturation of the television airwaves and other media with advertisements ensured that voters were already aware of his message, according to Danny Barefoot, a Democratic consultant who worked on some Senate and state legislative races.
“As you go down the ballot, we have more voters who are likely to drop off,” said Barefoot, referencing some voters’ tendency to cast votes in the presidential or other prominent races but abstain from voting in lower-profile contests. “One of the ways we make sure they don’t is by canvassing ― going door to door.”
In fact, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which elects Democrats to state legislatures, believes the lack of canvassing played a “huge role” in its poor performance this cycle. Notwithstanding legislative maps in some states that are gerrymandered to favor Republicans, Democrats had their sights set on flipping between five and 10 legislative chambers.
Instead, the party lost control of the state House and Senate in New Hampshire. And though the votes in some states are still being counted, Democrats are not expected to pick up any chambers to offset those losses.
“At the local level, door-knocking is often one of the best ways for candidates to distinguish themselves and introduce themselves to voters,” said DLCC spokesperson Christina Polizzi. “And because they weren’t able to do that safely during a pandemic, it certainly made it harder for them to push back on any narratives that the Republicans were pushing on them and then also to really talk to your neighbors about why you were running.”
The DLCC did not have any formal policy on whether its campaigns should engage in door-knocking during the pandemic.
But Emily Skopov, a Democrat who lost a high-profile bid to flip a Pennsylvania state House seat in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, was concerned that local Democratic Party officials and activists would punish her if she resumed canvassing over the summer. Skopov waited until the final six weeks of her campaign to return to the doors with strict health precautions after a hiatus that began in March. Skopov’s Republican opponent, who began canvassing in June, would end up winning the race by about 8 percentage points.
“The lack of canvassing did hurt,” Skopov said.
By contrast, the handful of Democratic organizations that did mount robust canvassing operations believe it helped flip key battleground states for Biden.
For Our Future, a progressive group backed by labor unions and liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, credits its door-knocking operation for helping turn out infrequent, Democratic-leaning voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada. The group, which spent weeks preparing for an Oct. 1 launch, said it knocked on 1.3 million doors, including 600,000 in Pennsylvania alone. The group’s 1,000-plus paid canvassers found that, as a result of the pandemic, they were actually more likely to succeed in engaging people at the doors than in previous election cycles.
“Our contact rate on the doors was higher this fall than what it’s been in the past,” For Our Future spokesperson Liz Cattaneo said during a call with reporters on Monday. “That contributes to our thinking that our organizing in person to reach folks who were less likely to connect through traditional means made a difference.”
“When we hear in the polls that Biden has these huge leads, it just doesn’t translate on the ground.”
UNITE HERE, a labor union that represents some 300,000 hospitality workers, has likewise touted its success knocking on 2.8 million doors in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada. The union began knocking doors in Arizona and Nevada in July, and in Pennsylvania in October. (Both UNITE HERE and For Our Future had significant canvassing operations in Florida as well, but they were less keen to highlight their work there to reporters.)
A secondary benefit of the door-knocking was an opportunity to see firsthand that public polling might have been overstating Biden’s standing, according to Gwen Mills, the union’s secretary-treasurer.
“By talking to people on the doors, you can tell, four years of Donald Trump have left many, many people feeling hopeless, and apathetic and disenfranchised from the voting process,” Mills said on a Nov. 5 press call. “And so, when we hear in the polls that Biden has these huge leads, it just doesn’t translate on the ground.
UNITE HERE and For Our Future took the utmost safety precautions while canvassing, requiring all door-knockers to wear masks and gloves, maintain social distance from people with whom they were speaking, and remain outdoors. The safety protocols adopted by the organizations, which consulted with public health experts and monitored canvassers’ health, sound a lot like what a former Obama administration assistant health secretary told Politico in August would be needed to conduct canvassing safely during the pandemic. There was not a single confirmed case of COVID-19 among UNITE HERE’s 1,700 canvassers, according to the union.
The Biden campaign estimates that its staff and volunteers knocked on a total of 5 million doors across the country in the final weeks of the campaign.
But Democratic Party officials involved in the national party’s planning operations are skeptical that the potential benefits of an earlier and more robust door-knocking program outweighed the risks, particularly given Biden’s emphasis on President Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. These officials point to a cautionary tale: The Progressive Turnout Project, a liberal super PAC, had to end its canvassing program in July after some of its in-person canvassers tested positive for COVID-19.
Some academic research supports the contention that canvassing is not an essential tool for winning campaigns. A 2017 study of multiple campaigns conducted by University of California, Berkeley, political scientists found that canvassing has no impact as a persuasion tactic in general elections. The study’s co-authors found that the technique is nonetheless an effective way of turning out voters who already support a given candidate.
“The reality is there is a coronavirus pandemic,” a national Democratic Party official said. “We had to find ways to reach voters and we did so very effectively.”
The official cited the results of the presidential race, which Biden won, as evidence of the party’s success, as well as the lack of a clear positive correlation between the handful of congressional candidates who decided to engage in canvassing earlier in the election and those who won their races.
For example, in Maine, where Sara Gideon’s Senate campaign led Democrats’ coordinated campaign efforts, Democrats began canvassing over the summer. Gideon still ended up losing to Sen. Susan Collins (R) by a comfortable margin, despite polling that consistently showed Gideon with a narrow lead.
The congressional campaign of Rep. Max Rose, a New York Democrat, paused its door-knocking program in March, but resumed canvassing in July, reaching tens of thousands of households in South Brooklyn and Staten Island. Together with its phone-banking operation, the campaign estimates that it tried to reach 1.2 million voters and successfully connected with 200,000 voters. Conversations at the doors were an especially effective way for Rose’s volunteers to debunk inaccurate claims that Rose supported “defunding” the police.
“If Democrats are going to argue that in-person canvassing didn’t make an impact, they’re going to have to throw out everything they argued in 2012 when Biden was running for vice president.”
The Republican National Committee’s communications director, Michael Ahrens, rejected the idea that official Democratic Party organs’ decision not to canvass had no impact on election outcomes, particularly given the GOP’s massive investment in canvassing this cycle. The RNC said its coordinated campaign apparatus knocked on 36.7 million doors as part of a larger field outreach effort that produced 185 million confirmed voter contacts. The party has explicitly tried to model its field efforts on then-President Barack Obama’s successful 2012 reelection campaign, providing its field staffers with the book “Groundbreakers,” about Obama’s army of volunteers.
“If Democrats are going to argue that in-person canvassing didn’t make an impact, they’re going to have to throw out everything they argued in 2012 when Biden was running for vice president,” Ahrens said.
Even if more canvassing might have given Democrats better election results, the party rightly holds itself to a higher ethical code than the GOP, according to Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, a progressive group.
“If folks on our side, because we genuinely cared about not putting people at risk, chose not to engage in in-person canvassing and chose not to engage in superspreader events, and that led to any electoral losses, we should just take those L’s,” Mitchell said.