Morning Consult on ground game: I hear you knocking but you can't come in

Donald Trump and the RNC have a massive effort to connect to voters on the ground, especially in swing states, part of a more traditional approach to campaigning than Team Trump used four years ago. Joe Biden and the DNC have eschewed this retail politicking altogether, arguing that voters don’t want door visits in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they’re sticking with nothing but national messaging and a few personal appearances from Biden.

It’s a big gamble from Team Biden, and the Washington Examiner points out its full scope in a report about the RNC’s $67.6 million August fundraising:

The Trump and Biden strategies are vastly different. Biden, said GOP officials, needs more money to run his campaign on TV instead of in person. While he does a few in-person events, Biden mostly Zooms his effort out of his house. Trump, meanwhile, has been hosting large rallies and dispatching troops to knock on doors.

The RNC effort funds what McDaniel called the largest field and data operation in party history: 2,000 and enough volunteers to top the 2.2 million who helped former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

So far, it has made 100 million voter contacts, and it has spent over $250 million on voter contact efforts to promote the whole Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, Team Biden has made … zero. Even bookies lay off their bets at some point. But will Biden end up a big winner on this score? Politico reports on a Morning Consult poll that suggests voters might be pleased to be left alone:

Voters overwhelmingly prefer that campaigns don’t dispatch workers to knock on their doors as part of their outreach efforts, with the number rising because of the pandemic that has sickened millions of Americans.

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.

Donald Trump and Republicans have been far more aggressive than their Democratic counterparts about resuming ground efforts, with Joe Biden’s campaign serving as the highest-profile holdout. The national survey, among the first public polls to track the question, lends legitimacy to Biden’s decision to replace traditional door knockers with calls, texts and other digital tools designed to reach voters.

However, that’s not as much of a change as it may sound:

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. Impromptu meetings with strangers on their stoops have long been considered effective for candidates, but can be awkward for voters. Campaigns often labor to reduce the unease by sending out workers who live in the community and presumably share their values.

Politico and Morning Consult don’t have toplines or crosstabs on this question available, so it’s tough to say who’s balkier. As this makes clear, the numbers on this question haven’t changed massively, although they have changed significantly. It doesn’t mention whether the discomfort involved makes them refuse to answer the door or to engage people who come to make voter contacts either.

However, this actually misses the point. No one likes door-knockers, and yet that doesn’t mean they’re not effective. For that matter, no one likes telemarketing and robocalls either, and yet Team Biden’s investing heavily in both as replacements for voter contacts.

Furthermore, Politico misses why campaigns use locals to do this messaging, and that misses the gap that Team Biden has allowed to emerge. Campaigns use people from the local community because they know the local issues and the people involved. Those kind of activists can contextualize a presidential agenda and messaging into local issues and concerns that impact the lives of voters in each community. That was the genius of Barack Obama’s organization — not only did they make very effective use of that technique, the campaign used the feedback loop effectively to adjust messaging and allow the candidate to speak directly to those local issues when the occasion arose.

In other words, the campaigns don’t do this to make voters comfortable with the door-knockers. The campaigns do this to make voters more comfortable with the candidates. Biden’s offering nothing but national messaging, while Trump’s campaign at least has the potential of contextualizing the Trump/GOP message for each individual voter they contact. If they’re succeeding at that tactic, that’s a massive advantage.

And even if the comfort number has dropped to 28%, what does that tell us about the opportunity? Most pollsters estimate the “persuadable” percentage of the electorate at around 5-10% at best. If over a quarter of voters are open to a doorway conversation at this point, then that’s an investment worth making.

In fact, if one reads further into the Politico report, we find down-ballot Dems hedging those bets after all:

An increasing number of down-ballot Democrats are opting to canvass in person again, even as Biden has stood firm against doing so.

Those candidates are closer to the ground than Morning Consult or Team Biden. In this case, action speaks louder than polls and rationalizations. This doesn’t mean Biden will lose the election, but it’s likely to mean that turnout will look a lot different than in 2018, when Democrats put all their effort into this kind of retail politicking and Republicans stuck with bad national messaging and ignoring their feedback loops.

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