While the passengers of a car waiting for the caravan to pass offered a single-fingered response to the noise, the Biden staff members clapped and waved. One staffer taunted the drivers, with a comment that was withering only if you knew anything about politics: While the caravan was echoing through the mostly empty downtown, Trump’s opponent had volunteers out encouraging people to vote.
I was in Scranton to see exactly what the campaigns were doing on that front, as I was four years ago on the weekend before the election. Then, I was surprised by the robustness of the Trump-Republican Party effort, with a room in a small house just outside of town full of volunteers making calls. It was a stark contrast with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s headquarters downtown, where a couple of people were milling around in a cavernous space.
The feel this year was quite different.
To understand why the Biden staffer’s remark was so cutting, it’s important to understand what campaigns hope to do in the final stretch before the election concludes. It’s called get-out-the-vote weekend, and it centers on precisely that: encouraging that campaign’s voters to ensure that they cast ballots.
To do so, volunteers can engage in a hierarchy of activities. The most useful is to knock on doors and talk to voters directly, encouraging them to make a plan to vote and ensuring they know where to go. (Effective campaigns weed out voters who’ve already cast ballots, trimming down this outreach.) Campaigns have volunteers do this over the phone as well, although that’s generally considered less effective.
For less sociable volunteers and to broaden their reach, campaigns also leave door hangers with information about when and how to vote. And then, at the bottom of the list when ordered by usefulness, there’s “visibility,” standing on a corner holding a sign or, say, driving your muffler-less Italian luxury car down the street while waving a flag.
The Biden staffer was saying, in essence, cool visibility — and therefore: Thanks for wasting your time.
It wasn’t just the caravan, though. The Biden effort was robust, a string of tents lined up along the street where volunteers underwent a three-part intake process. Step one: temperature check and health assessment, a nod to the realities of the moment — and a reinforcement of the candidate’s rhetoric on the importance of heeding the science amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (When I entered the office, my temperature was taken.) Second, registration on laptops. Third, a quick training and offer of material, including Biden-branded masks and hand sanitizer.
During the period I was there, I saw at least a dozen people go through those three steps. Among them was Sean Horgan, 46, a former Marine who came from Massachusetts to volunteer in person for a campaign for the first time.
“I feel like the biggest thing we have to do is just get people out to vote,” he said. “Elected officials are generally representation of the people — but of the people who come out to vote.”
An independent, he didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton in 2016 (in part, given that it doesn’t really matter much in Massachusetts). His motivation to aid Biden was based on a sense of what Biden might achieve in the abstract.
“I’m just exhausted from this feeling — all these binary choices that politicians are putting in front of us,” Horgan said. He said that Biden was someone who could bridge the divides that have widened over the past four years. “The divides have always existed, but some people have tried to put them together,” he said. “And I think Donald Trump has tried to push everyone apart.”
Across the street, the Trump campaign’s effort, being run out of the county Republican Party offices, was somewhat less refined. A man not wearing a mask (unlike all of the Biden staffers) refused to answer even basic questions about the campaign’s effort. When I later came into the office to see if I could get a contact for someone who could answer questions, I was again rebuffed, with the same man signaling to a bulky security guard, presumably to ensure that I could find the exit.
I did see a few people going into the Trump headquarters, though, all of whom emerged holding lawn signs and other material.
Wendy Ross, 48, and Diana Dietz, 43, came to pick up signs and literature that their teenage daughters wanted to distribute. Unlike Horgan, they weren’t planning to turn out voters on Sunday, but they were going to hand out material at polling places.
“I think the polls are wrong,” Ross said, “and I think Trump is going to win unless there’s election fraud. God, I’m hoping not. I think that’s on everybody’s mind.”
“That’s the only thing that we’re worried about, is election fraud,” Dietz added. Asked why she was worried about it, she shrugged.
“I just think Democrats are going to try to pull something just to get in,” she said.
There remains no evidence that there is any risk of significant fraud occurring, despite Trump’s relentless focus on the possibility. He and his allies have used this idea that fraud is rampant to try to scale back voting and vote-counting.
To Steve Kramer, 76, a union member who had come to walk for Biden, this served as an indictment of the president and his allies.
“They don’t believe in truth,” he said. “They don’t believe in democracy and voting. They try and stop voting. Voter suppression is the biggest tool at this point, and [Trump’s] the head of it.”
A few hours later, a few other Trump supporters emerged from the campaign headquarters to cheer on the caravan. They, too, were just picking up material. All of them planned to serve as “poll watchers” on Tuesday, part of the local Republican Party’s effort to staff polling places with watchful eyes.
“I feel like there’s going to be fraud and cheating in the Democratic Party,” Pam Gintoff, 53, said when asked why she thought this was important.
She supported Trump in 2016 and said that her husband, who worked in construction, had a huge surge in business since Trump took office because of the “booming” economy. Of the four people in her group, she was the only one who voted last time.
Larry Stange, 61, reinforced how important it was that most of the group hadn’t.
“I’ve talked to — it’s not like I see a lot of people, but I think a representative sampling is that there are a lot of people who hadn’t voted before,” Stange said when I asked what he thought might happen. “I think it’s signified in — you know, Trump, if the numbers are right in rallies, it looks like close to 50 percent of people at a Trump rally either didn’t vote in 2016 or didn’t vote for him in 2016. I’m actually seeing that in the people that I talk to. I’m seeing a lot of that.”
That Trump supporters were choosing to “poll watch” and to do visibility instead of contacting voters is not what one would expect of a finely tuned political machine on GOTV weekend. In 2016, the campaign had full rooms of callers and people walking out in the community. This year, it didn’t, as far as I could tell. Granted, a pandemic is going on, but adhering to pandemic guidelines has not emerged as a particular strength of Trump or his campaign.
It’s also not clear whether those poll watchers will be allowed to watch polls. Dolores Zurek, 83, came with a friend to pick up the material she would need to administer her polling location on Tuesday. She explained how the whole thing worked, that poll watchers needed official documents from the county to be there and that a constable would be on site to assist with problems.
She said that the instructions were more cautious than they had been in years past and the precautions more substantial, but that her only concern was “outsiders” coming into the polls. She also said she had already heard from an attorney for Biden’s campaign who would be there on Election Day, too.
Poll watching does have a use, by the way, one that links back to what sophisticated campaigns want to do on Election Day. Campaigns build lists of confirmed or likely voters and try to make sure they know how to vote when Election Day rolls around. Then, on the day of voting, they can have poll watchers check to see who actually has voted, allowing the campaign to pressure those who haven’t.
It’s all part and parcel of trying to get as many of your people to vote as possible. The reason visibility isn’t useful is because it doesn’t demonstrably increase votes. Is there someone who was watching that ruckus on Wyoming Avenue who then committed to making a plan about how he would vote for Trump? Almost certainly not. There’s no guarantee that the people watching were even registered to vote in Pennsylvania.
Campaigns do visibility on occasions when a candidate isn’t well known. But this year, for Trump, there may be another reason. Trump’s insistence on his popularity — those rallies cited by Stange, for example, or the president’s embrace of parades and caravans — help amplify the sense that he’s sitting atop a massive reservoir of support that remains untapped by pollsters. Visibility may not turn out voters, but it may convince people that you have a lot of voters in a state, a distinction that’s useful if you want to, say, claim that you lost only because of fraud.
After I was done speaking to Horgan, the Marine volunteering for Biden, he came back up to me to add another point that he thought was important.
“I served in Iraq in 2005, 2006, where our job was to make the elections safe for people to get out there,” he said. He explained that he had seen how difficult it was simply to cast a ballot in Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located.
“It really gets my blood pressure up when I feel like, you know, for many of us — and I hear this from a lot of my friends in the military and what we did to try and get people to set up free and fair elections in Iraq, and we come here and we see all this being politicized when it should just be the easiest thing,” he added. “If anything, the United States should be a beacon for how elections are run.”
Trump has made clear that he doesn’t necessarily see his path to victory in this election running through a full, accurate count of cast ballots. If he did, those trucks and fancy cars may have been more likely to lay off the horns, pull over to the side of the road and pick up material for contacting voters.