I’ve thought since March that I could not in good conscience go door-knocking for any campaign while coronavirus is on the loose. I might tolerate a no-contact, no-knock canvassing effort, dashing down the street to hang campaign cards on doorknobs, but even then, I’d feel the need to make very visible—mask, gloves, maybe even a printed disclaimer—my efforts to avoid giving voters the impression that I’m leaving teeming packets of death on their doorsteps. I’d also operate with the dread of inevitably losing some voters who would perceive that I’m putting them at unnecessary risk of contagion.
Team Biden appears to agree with me that the risks of canvassing during a pandemic outweigh whatever may be gained, and that there are safer, more effective ways to reach voters:
“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,” Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, told reporters in a call last week, downplay the clear door-knocking disparity. “Our metric of success, the numbers we look at and use, are conversations.”
In August, she said the Biden campaign had 2.6 million conversations with voters in battleground states. Those conversations were virtual, over the phone or via text message, or in person “when that is safe and is warranted,” she said. (The campaign also intends to begin door-to-door visits soon, not for any face-to-face meetings, but to drop off campaign literature and voter education materials.)
The Democrats’ strategy of mainly organizing from home via laptop or cellphone and forgoing traditional door-to-door canvassing is somewhat untested, but they’re banking on the assumption that it’s more effective in a pandemic.
Democrats say they’re not door knocking because safety is their main priority, and they don’t want to put people at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“We think what voters are looking for right now is responsible leadership and that comes from the VP and what he’s saying, but it also comes from the campaign,” said Molly Ritner, the Biden campaign’s deputy states director.
And because of the pandemic, Ritner, like other Democrats, says it feels like more Americans are at home, sometimes isolated, on their devices and eager to talk.
“What we’re finding is that we are able to actually connect and reach more people than we had been in previous cycles through the phone,” Ritner said [Asma Khalid, “Republicans Are Knocking on Doors/ Democrats Aren’t. Biden’s Campaign Says That’s OK,” NPR, 2020.09.13].
A new poll from Politico and Morning Consult indicates that a big majority of voters agree with Team Biden:
Sixty-three percent of voters now feel apprehensive about encountering canvassers outside their door, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Tuesday. Just 28 percent say they are comfortable being contacted in person by campaign volunteers.
…Asked how they felt prior to the coronavirus, voters were far more closely divided, though they still were suspicious: 42 percent say they felt comfortable and 47 percent were uncomfortable, according to the poll [Christopher Cadelago, “Voters to Trump and Biden Camps: Don’t Come Knocking on Our Doors,” Politico, 2020.09.22].
I thought maybe there’d be a big partisan disparity in attitudes about canvassing during a pandemic, with Democrats being more responsible and cautious and Republicans happy to fling wide their doors in denial of public health risks. But the poll finds strong majorities in both parties preferring we not spew our droplets on their doorsteps right now:
The poll found Republicans slightly more accommodating to door-to-door canvassers, before and after the virus took hold. Prior to the pandemic, 48 percent of Republicans felt OK about it, whereas 43 percent of Democrats did. After, 36 percent of Republicans remain fine with the tactic, versus just a quarter of Democrats [Cadelago, 2020.09.22].
Do the math, campaigners: according to this poll, fewer than three out of every ten people you try to reach in person at home are going to be comfortable with your coming to their doors. For every one of the 11% of that 28% (that multiplies to 3% of your total contacts) who are still inexplicably, attention-seekingly, or profoundly inattentively undecided and whom you might be able to persaude to pay attention and vote for your side, you may well turn off one or two other voters who take justifiable offense at your unnecessarily increasing their risk of contagion by making contact after contact with strangers and then breathing on their door. Why put your neighbors and your own campaign volunteers at heightened risk of coronavirus for such low potential returns?
Saving democracy from the Trumpist menace is important, but as Team Biden and a majority of voters recognize, we have plenty of ways to spread that message without spreading coronavirus.