Yesterday, the Trump campaign and the RNC claimed they had beaten Democrats in a key election goal — registering new voters, especially in battleground states. Axios reported that their data showed the GOP had significantly narrowed Democratic registration leads in key states like North Carolina, Arizona, and Iowa — as well as in Pennsylvania and Florida. That’s all fine and good, I wrote in response, but voter registrations are only half the battle. What matters most is getting those voters to cast their ballots, which is where the ground game really matters most.
Maybe someone should explain that to Joe Biden. According to Politico, the RNC and Trump campaign are combining up for one million door-knock contacts a week, a traditional GOTV metric and a big improvement in focus over 2016. Team Biden and the DNC have combined for a door-knock total of … zero:
The Republican and Democratic parties — from the presidential candidates on down — are taking polar opposite approaches to door-to-door canvassing this fall. The competing bets on the value of face-to-face campaigning during a pandemic has no modern precedent, making it a potential wild card in November, especially in close races.
Biden and the Democratic National Committee aren’t sending volunteers or staffers to talk with voters at home, and don’t anticipate doing anything more than dropping off literature unless the crisis abates. The campaign and the Democratic National Committee think they can compensate for the lack of in-person canvassing with phone calls, texts, new forms of digital organizing, and virtual meet-ups with voters.
“At first I was nervous, but our response rates on phone calls and texts are much higher and people are not necessarily wanting someone to go up to their door right now,” said Jenn Ridder, Biden’s national states director. “You get to throw a lot of the rule book out the window and try out new things.”
Trump and the Republican National Committee, in contrast, started deploying mask-wearing field staffers and volunteers to the streets in June. The GOP quickly ramped up and now claims more than a million doors a week despite Covid-19 surges across the country, including in swing states like Arizona.
That’s one hell of a gamble by Biden and the DNC, but it might be more of an effort to make a virtue out of necessity. The RNC has been building a candidate-independent GOTV arm originally called the Republican Leadership Initiative (now called the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative), based on the model used by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The RNC has heavily invested in that infrastructure, helped by its massive fundraising edge over the DNC the last several years, and this is precisely the task for which it was designed — having local supporters stoke enthusiasm in their own communities with personal connections.
The DNC simply doesn’t have the resources to compete, and Biden’s general-election campaign barely had any money before the summer. They don’t have the resources either, nor apparently the urgency needed to raise them. Their centralized national-messaging strategy is a cheesier, 30,000-foot approach to GOTV that might pay off if people resent porch visits in the age of COVID-19.
It seems more likely, though, that people will resent the impersonal broadcast-text messaging and robocalls to a far greater degree. Besides, the GOP uses those techniques as well, but the end result seems to be more that voters block those numbers and ignore the messages. The NRCC ran afoul of our friend and colleague Kurt Schlichter over this very point, but I’ve been blocking the annoying GOP text messaging and robocalls for months, too. I just haven’t complained publicly about it, until now anyway.
If Ridder thinks this strategy is a “new thing,” she hasn’t been around long. Both Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 thought they could win with the same kind of 30,000-foot, national-messaging strategy rather than local voter engagement; I wrote about the Romney campaign’s failure in my book Going Red. That was a disastrous strategy in the previous two presidential cycles, and it might be the best gift Biden can give to Trump for 2020.