Back in the 1990s, when disciples of James Carville dominated the ranks of Democratic campaign professionals, you could always get a big rise out of any of them by suggesting they should deploy more yard signs and billboards. Their contempt for such old-school tools was near-complete, as was their faith in a concise, poll-tested message conveyed heavily on TV. You saw an echo of this contrast in partisan preference in 2012, when Barack Obama’s data-hip team quietly mocked the conservative pundits aflutter over Mitt Romney’s yard-sign advantage.
Now even in the 1990s, Democrats didn’t completely eschew hard-core, visible campaign methods, as anyone who has ever heard a sound truck in an urban neighborhood conducting aptly named “knock and drag” get-out-the-vote operations can attest. Indeed, as partisan polarization has reduced the number of persuadable swing voters, such occasionally noisy mobilization efforts have become more important in both parties.
But this year the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably led Biden-Harris strategists to rely on more remote mobilization techniques, at least so far. And the contrast with the extremely visible advocates of MAGA, who are far less inhibited by public-health guidance, is making some Democrats nervous, as Time’s Charlotte Alter discovered in Michigan:
This year, 83-year-old former Chrysler employee [Don Sabbe] says he’ll definitely vote for Joe Biden, but he’s getting concerned about Biden’s campaign here in Michigan.
“I can’t even find a sign,” Sabbe says outside a Kroger’s in Sterling Heights, where surrounding cars fly massive Donald Trump flags that say “No More Bullsh-t” and fellow shoppers wear Trump T-shirts for their weekend grocery runs. “I’m looking for one of those storefronts. I’m looking for a campaign office for Biden. And I’m not finding one.”
The reason Sabbe can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online.
Hilariously, when Alter asked one Biden campaign staffer how many people they had on the ground in Michigan, she was asked in turn: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground’?”
By contrast, for all its alleged social-media savvy and its heavy TV presence, the Trump-Pence campaign is very physically in-your-face, from the raucous live rallies the president loves so much to the boat parades and the huge flags and signs and every other campaign resource of the 1950s. The MAGA folk may choose to ignore polls because they allegedly miss “shy Trump voters.” But “shy” is not the word that comes to mind when you encounter bellowing red-hatted fans of the president eager to show their lack of political correctness.
In choosing a different approach, the Biden campaign is practicing what he preaches in the way of responsible behavior during a pandemic. The candidate’s representatives say they are compensating for the lack of sound and fury in other ways, according to Alter:
Biden’s Michigan team says its campaign is significantly bigger than Clinton’s and may be the largest program in the state’s history. The campaign says it reached out to 1.4 million voters during the Democratic convention and the weekend that followed, with 500 digital-organizing events and 10,000 volunteer signups. In the week before Labor Day, the campaign sent 500,000 texts to Michigan voters — one every half-second. It has just replaced the trappings of a traditional ground game — volunteers knocking on doors, distributing literature, and so forth — with a digital field operation.
The question is whether there’s something about the loud-and-proud Trump effort that is somehow contagious, or that helps build enthusiasm and willingness to vote in a tangible way. Looking at it conversely, does a field operation without physical voter contact forfeit something essential?
Democrats are used to measuring their strength by their ground game, and without physical boots on the ground, the effect can be unsettling. It brings up uncomfortable questions about whether a “digital field” operation can really replace a “traditional field” operation without something being lost. Sure, it sounds like digital field organizing should work. But does it actually? Nobody knows, because it’s never been tried on this scale before.
The polls look good for Biden in Michigan, but they looked good for Clinton in 2016, too — though fewer of them were being taken. If nothing else, though, perhaps the dominant physical presence of the Trump campaign and its supporters will help prevent the kind of Democratic overconfidence that may have done in HRC. And if digital field organizing does work in November, perhaps future campaigns will be quieter, if less colorful.