Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic marketing campaign—voter contact underneath COVID-19

We need to talk about risk

The biggest reason you are not seeing a large field campaign by most organizations is a simple one: morals. Democratic campaigns and organizations feel as though putting out a large field campaign into a community puts their own volunteers and residents at risk. Knocking on someone’s door could mean you hit a door of someone who is self-quarantined. Or, someone who doesn’t know they have been exposed.

In a July 20 post, Kelly Dietrich of the National Democratic Training Committee made the case this way:

The official recommendation of the National Democratic Training Committee is you should not knock on doors.

To be clear, no one at NDTC is a medical expert. We are trying to synthesize and understand all COVID-19 related information in the same way you are. But, we do keep a finger on the pulse of what voters are feeling and thinking, and how they will react to certain things campaigns do or don’t do.

So let’s lay it out plain and simple.

Knocking doors or sending volunteers to knock doors will, at best, harm your campaign’s reputation. At worst, you are risking the health and safety of your community.

Also, as someone who is not a medical expert, I feel as though each campaign has to evaluate methods they are using to handle outreach and turn out voters. Talk to your local organizations, those around you, and evaluate how you plan to handle your campaign.

Semi- and fully contactless campaigning

Okay, so, the traditional stand at a door and talk to a voter isn’t the norm this year. Does that mean all direct voter outreach is over? Republicans think so, and they are moving forward with a hybrid model. From McClatchy:

Phillips said his group (Americans for Prosperity), which has endorsed a slate of Republican congressional candidates but not Trump, deployed only its staffers, and not volunteers, in the month of June, in an effort he said was used to make sure the process would be safe. By July, the group had ramped up its operation to include dozens of people, staff and volunteers alike, in key battleground states like Montana and Georgia, who walked door to door advocating on behalf of those states’ incumbent GOP senators.

Phillips said the campaigners are taught to knock on a door and step as far back as eight to 12 feet afterward to maintain safe social distancing while they speak with a voter at their front door.

Citing the idea that they can do a contactless voter contact, in the same way, that Amazon delivers packages or delivery food provides to homes during COVID, Republicans believe that “Ring a bell and knock back to a distance” will work among their voters. 

Strategists raise worries

The truth is, we have no idea, at all, how this will play out in the whole. In the McClatchy article, one Democratic strategist notes the large concern is statehouse seats.

“There is a widespread worry it is going to cost us seats,” said one veteran Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t hear people saying it’s going to cost us the presidential election. But I know there is concern it will cost us state legislative seats.”

Why should they worry? While congressional, Senate and presidential campaigns are well known, many statehouses and lower campaigns aren’t identified so well. In Kansas, we were the host to this as a young, very troubled candidate managed to win a primary and used door knocking as his primary technique. As a result, a candidate with very little money prevailed over an incumbent with significantly more money and resources, which, frankly, most of us wish didn’t, and should not have, ever happened.

In Missouri’s 1st congressional district, a similar direct voter contact effort was held for Cori Bush, which may have helped lead to her win over Lacy Clay. 


Who’s ready to knock some doors? See you soon for a quick training and a chance to get to talk to voters about why you LOVE Cori! “

— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) July 15, 2020

These kinds of wins raise questions for Democratic candidates who are looking at a way to make sure they turn out their voters, even during a pandemic. If this is the case, how do we replicate it and stay safe? Can we find room for a hybrid? Can we find a social model that works that turns out similar votes? This is a question that on a daily basis, more campaigns are asking. 

Tracking COVID-19 may be key

I want to state one thing again: I am not a doctor. I do not think there is a definitive answer or a certain piece of advice. There is no single way to win a campaign. What we are seeing, however, is that the two parties have flipped sides on how direct voter outreach happens. For Democratic campaigns, this is going to make early voter turnout even more important. In North Carolina, voters may have their ballot by now in the mailbox. Encouraging our circles of influence to turn their ballots in, and encouraging others to do the same is even more valuable than ever. Without a widespread door knocking army, we have to realize that there are a lot of voters who we don’t have easy access to reach. They may not have the internet or a phone number that is available to your campaign. 

These factors mean that turning out voters early, through advance voting, is going to be of unbelievable importance in 2020. A little bit like “Santa Claus is making a list, checking it twice…” Democratic campaigns are going to have to make a list, and check it multiple times to make sure that mailed ballots are turned in and received by election offices. Four years ago and two years ago, I noted that a ballot chase campaign would be important in those cycles, but in 2020, a ballot chase campaign is THE ballgame for Democratic candidates on the ballot.

Whatever we do, though, there will be room for us to talk to voters and make them know they are welcome. Wear a mask. Keep a safe distance. All of the cool kids can do it.

Let’s hear what campaigns near you are doing, and what do you think is appropriate. There are no wrong answers here, I’ve heard it all, and I think the discussion alone is worth our time.

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