Democrats' Virtual Campaign Gamble Is Getting Its First Big Test In Wisconsin

Trump has volunteers knocking on doors in Wisconsin while Democrats are making phone calls and sending texts.
August 17, 2020, 12:09pm
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump.

WASHINGTON — When Democrats selected Milwaukee to host their national convention last year, it was a clear message that they would spend as much time and shoe leather as possible to win back Wisconsin after President Trump flipped it in 2016.

But now, as the Democratic National Convention gets set to kick off, it’s the most visible symbol of how the coronavirus has impacted Democrats’ campaign strategy. Democrats are left hoping that a campaign that’s abandoned nearly all face-to-face activity can compete with Republicans, who continue to run an in-person effort to reelect President Trump. And nowhere is this more important or more stark than in Wisconsin, the “home” of Democrats’ now-virtual convention and arguably the most important swing state in the country. 

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Democrats aren’t knocking on doors. They’re not holding in-person campaign events. And most of them won’t even be in Milwaukee this week. That includes Joe Biden, who will deliver his nomination acceptance speech from his home state of Delaware on Thursday, even as President Trump campaigns in-person in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Four years after their ground game let them down in the state, Democrats have gone almost all-virtual as Republicans largely treat the pandemic as an inconvenience rather than an existential threat in their campaign strategies. Both sides admit their approach is risky.

For Democrats, this week’s convention will be a crucial test for whether a virtual campaign can actually work.

Not knocking

“On the GOP side they’re crowing about how they’re back on the doors. … Maybe that’s working with them with Republican doors,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. “For Democrats and independents, every piece of evidence suggests a huge door-knocking campaign would be counterproductive.”

All their efforts stand in stark contrast to the GOP. While Republicans have taken precautions and in some cases moved their campaigns more or less online, in broad swaths of Wisconsin and across the country they’re still knocking on doors and even holding in-person events.

“Republicans are saying we can walk and chew gum at the same time, be safe and respectful but also show we’re going to go out there and earn your vote, and Dems are putting all their eggs in one basket, use this as a messaging tactic,” said Wisconsin GOP strategist Brian Reisinger. “Can they do what they need to do completely from their basements? I doubt it.”

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Democrats think their cautious approach contrasts well with the GOP’s — it shows they’re taking things seriously and respecting voters’ safety, even as Republicans pretend things are basically normal.

“Trump waltzing around like there’s no pandemic underway and Democrats taking every precaution to show we’re not spreading coronavirus — that sets up exactly the right contrast.”

“Trump waltzing around like there’s no pandemic underway and Democrats taking every precaution to show we’re not spreading coronavirus — that sets up exactly the right contrast,” said Wikler.

Democrats have spent the previous months striving to figure out how to get their voters out without seeing them in person. They’ve been focused on voter education, as well as building out “relational organizing” — a focus on finding people in specific communities who can reach out to their friends, family, classmates and neighbors rather than a stranger.

Instead of knocking doors and pushing in-person voter registration drives at major events, Democrats are focused on expanding their digital, and phone-call and text-based operations, with the only in-person efforts being physical drops of campaign literature that activists follow up with a call a few days later. 

“It’s not ideal, but we are where we are,”  said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist. “It’s been more phones and digital. There’s no shortage of people who want to help here and want to volunteer to do text messages and phone calls. A lot of it you can do digitally. Does that mean it’s as effective or as easy to do? No.”

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Democrats have also beefed up efforts to make sure voters know when and where they can vote. That includes what one Democratic strategist described as a “customer service” component where people who aren’t sure how to vote safely get connected with specialists to help them make sure they can find out if they’re registered, walk them through how to get their ballots.

Mail-in ballot education

Voter education will matter a lot, especially for Democrats, who polls show are likely to vote heavily by mail even as Republicans disproportionately say they’ll vote in-person. Roughly 23,000 absentee ballots were tossed out in Wisconsin’s April primary because voters made mistakes with their ballots. Many, many more would have been tossed for coming in late if not for a Supreme Court decision that allowed them to be counted — a ruling not in place for November.

Even if they wanted to, Democrats couldn’t be doing the same thing Republicans are. Democratic voters are significantly more worried about the risk of coronavirus than Republicans, largely because of how politically polarized attitudes have become about the coronavirus but also because Democrats tend to be a lot more clustered in urban and suburban areas while Republicans are spread out more across exurbs and rural territory.

For every voter really longing for face to face communication there could be three that are really turned off by the depravity of sending someone out into a community and risking spreading coronavirus,” said Zepecki.

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Democrats plan to use the convention as a flashpoint to train thousands more volunteers.

“We are using the occasion of the world’s first digital major-party convention to run the worlds’ first and biggest in-convention digital organization training: Campaign Academy 2020,” said Wikler. “This is an opportunity for us to train people from across the country in digital organizing skill.”

The convention itself is still striving for a Wisconsin flavor. Wisconsin politicians are slated to speak on three of the four nights of the convention. They’re also hoping to find a way to keep it entertaining and exciting, and avoid the boring, flat affect that can occur from a series of speeches with no audience. Organizers are taking cues from the NFL draft’s live broadcast, as well as the “Graduate Together” event that was headlined by President Obama and featured a pantheon of sports and music icons.

Virtual watch parties

Democrats will hold virtual watch parties throughout the state and country all week, including a Wisconsin-based one hosted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“The convention is still going to cast a terrific bright spotlight on the Democratic Party’s message, it’s going to orient volunteers and the infrastructure around our programs in Wisconsin, and it’s going to be blanketing local media,” said Democratic National Committee Spokesman David Bergstein. “Even in its current form it’s going to have a very powerful impact on this state.”

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Biden’s campaign says their digital outreach has been effective. Just last weekend, the campaign held 275 separate localized digital events in Wisconsin, where 3,300 volunteers texted and called more than 370,000 Wisconsin voters.

But their efforts mark a stark contrast with the GOP. Wisconsin Republicans, like their counterparts elsewhere, have continued to knock on doors in most communities. Trump has had to limit his campaigning, but is planning a trio of campaign events next week as counterprogramming to the Democrats’ convention, with events in Minnesota, Arizona, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

It’s not like things have gone smoothly for Trump, who’s had to cancel numerous previous planned rallies and is still facing a Republican National Convention in flux, having pushed to move it to Florida before backing off. He now plans to give his convention speech from the White House after toying with a speech at Gettysburg.

Democrats are holding up Wisconsin as a model for what they hope to do across the battleground states. They easily won a state supreme court race in April after emphasizing mail voting as Republicans scrambled and Trump’s anti-mail vote message suppressed ballots. But it’s unclear how much that mattered — Democrats had a presidential primary to goose turnout while Republicans didn’t, and in a recent House special election in the state’s conservative North Woods the margin was only slightly better for Democrats than in the 2016 election.

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The location of a convention doesn’t actually mean much for the final result of a state. After all, Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania in a shock last election even though the 2016 Democratic National Convention was in Philadelphia. In 2012, President Obama lost North Carolina after holding his convention in Charlotte, and won Florida even though Mitt Romney had set up shop in Tampa.

And it’s clear that the coronavirus has damaged President Trump’s standing a bit with voters. Biden led Trump by about four percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of national polls in early March, when he was sowing up the nomination and the coronavirus was just starting to impact daily life in the U.S. Now, he’s up by around eight percentage points.

But the two sides have taken very different approaches to this election. And the convention will be the first visible proving ground for whether Democrats’ can work.

The two parties are both taking large gambles here, and they’re diametrically opposed and making bets in completely the opposite direction,” said Reisinger, the GOP strategist. “It’s going to be fascinating.”

Cover: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holds a roundtable meeting on reopening the economy with community leaders at the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 11, 2020. U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the renewed briefing of the Coronavirus Task Force in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on July 21, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)