The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats in key states press for a more visible Biden campaign

Erie County in western Pennsylvania has long been a Democratic stronghold, but it voted for President Trump in 2016, a shift that was key to him winning the state by a margin of less than 1 percentage point. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In the states that will probably decide the presidential election, President Trump is everywhere. Discussion of his presidency and the actions of his administration — often critical — fill social media feeds, newscasts, letters-to-the-editor pages and socially distanced end-of-the-driveway conversations. For months, his campaign ads dominated the airwaves. His name decorates signs and flags hung on barns, boats and retirement community golf carts.

That has not necessarily helped Trump, who trails former vice president Joe Biden in almost all key states. Yet to some of Biden’s supporters, Trump’s continuing dominance is a warning sign. They are lobbying for Biden to take a more aggressive stance, worried that despite his seeming advantage he has failed so far to persuade people to vote for him — not simply against Trump.

“I want to see Democrats doing more to get one another excited for this race,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D), whose Erie County district split its vote in 2016, siding with him and Trump. “I want some more movement up here; I want a presence up here. I think that’s really needed. It’s needed now more than ever.”

 The worries echo those preceding Hillary Clinton’s surprise losses in states that formerly had been reliably Democratic, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Biden’s campaign is rushing to build a general-election operation and to amplify his pitch. But at the same time, the global pandemic has upended traditional, momentum-building rallies and events. The result for Biden is a merging of virtual campaigning and the most basic of traditional efforts, such as signs touting the candidate.

Biden’s approach for now is focused predominantly on four states that President Barack Obama won in 2012 but that Clinton lost in 2016 — the three northern states and Florida — even as Trump’s failure to control the coronavirus crisis has given Biden potential opportunities in states such as Texas and Georgia. He is borrowing strategies that worked for Democratic candidates who have won states or districts where Trump succeeded in 2016. Biden’s organizing is being supplemented by a rush of organic efforts by individuals determined to gather more votes for Biden, or often against Trump, independent of the campaign.

Republicans in many states have resumed knocking on doors, holding meetings and registering voters at community events, despite the serious health risks of doing so. Democrats remain almost completely virtual, hosting online house parties, organizing Facebook groups and calling and texting voters — work that is largely out of view compared to traditional presidential election years. A few of the staffers the Biden campaign recently hired for battleground states may never be able to safely move to those sites.

Erie County in western Pennsylvania has long been a Democratic stronghold, but it voted for Trump in 2016, a shift that was key to him winning the state by a margin of less than one percentage point.

For weeks, Bizzarro said, he badgered the Biden campaign to do more to directly target voters, especially those who definitely won’t vote for Trump but might need some coaxing to cast a ballot for Biden. He noted that the campaign named a state director in early July, three months after Biden became the presumptive nominee, and other staff since then. Several of Biden’s hires have deep ties to western Pennsylvania, which the campaign promises will be a major focus in the coming months.

A “Back to Blue” program, started by the state party, has begun ramping up locally and holding virtual house parties to rally Democrats. Volunteers have contacted more than 86,000 voters in Erie County, which local party leaders say has a higher-than-expected rate of people answering calls or responding to texts.

Yet Biden hasn’t done any media interviews, and the campaign has yet to hold any virtual roundtables or major events tied to Erie County, although local Democrats say some are in the works.

Bizzarro wants Biden to more heavily focus on the county and be more visible in people’s lives.

“Voters expect an honest effort on the candidate’s part to at least try to get out there and make some sort of effort to connect with them,” said Bizzarro, who has kept his office open throughout the pandemic, even as most of his colleagues from both parties closed theirs.

A major lesson of 2016 for Democratic National Committee leaders was that they needed to drive an ongoing conversation with voters and set up continuing field programs in key states.

Over the past three years, national Democrats heavily invested in state parties in battleground states and provided grants to fund training, community organizing efforts in communities of color, and increased digital voter outreach. The national party has launched programs with catchy names to target particular voting groups: “Chop it Up” is aimed at Black men, while “Seat at the Table” organizes Black women.

A major criticism of Clinton’s campaign was that too many strategic decisions were made at her Brooklyn headquarters and not by those stationed in the states — and that polling data seemed to be trusted over the voices of local officials who saw building support for Trump and begged her campaign to change course.

“The Biden team that’s on the ground now listens far better than the group did four years ago,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has been urging Democrats not to believe polls showing Biden easily winning her state. “If I pick something up or I get worried, I say: ‘We’ve got to pay attention to this.’ They hear you and then we work it.”

Michigan Democrats estimate that their organizing capacity is seven times what it was in 2016; 19 organizers have been working in Detroit since soon after the 2016 election. Florida Democrats have started a Spanish-language radio show where they can train surrogates, after years of hearing far more conservatives than liberals on talk shows. The Erie County Democratic Party opened satellite offices to better connect with suburban and rural voters, while also seeking out immigrants living in the city.

“They are excited to empower people at the local and state level to be the leaders and drive this campaign, and I’ve see that at every choice,” said Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D). “You can learn about how someone will be as president by how they campaign.”

In several key states, the candidate’s visibility has increased each week, many Democrats say — more ads on television and radio, more mentions on social media, more signs in yards — and there’s widespread optimism that the campaign will be a powerful force by Labor Day, the traditional start of all-out general-election campaigning. The campaign plans to have more than 2,000 staff members in battleground states by then.

“It doesn’t seem like the number one thing on people’s minds or the number one news story — but it’s July,” Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who narrowly won a 2018 special election in a southwest Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20 points, said in a recent interview. He recently held an infrastructure-focused virtual roundtable for the Biden campaign aimed at Pittsburgh-area voters, especially those who might have voted for Trump.

To try to break through Trump’s command of national attention, the campaign has been hammering on a singular theme for several weeks: Biden’s promise to “build back better.” National events or speeches featuring the candidate are quickly followed by smaller, locally focused events with major surrogates that hit on the same topic. That message is echoed in local media interviews, op-eds, scripts used when calling voters and social media posts from locally elected officials.

“We know the voters we need to talk to and the programs we need to run . . . I don’t spend a lot of time comparing our infrastructure to the other guy. Obviously, it’s something we are aware of and know, but it honestly isn’t what is keeping me up at night,” said Molly Ritner, Biden’s deputy states director. “My greatest concern is to make sure we have the capacity to run the programs and talk to the voters that we need to win.”

Wisconsin’s Pepin County was one of 22 in the state to flip from voting for Obama to Trump. Clinton received 800 fewer votes than Obama did in 2008 in the county — and local party officials spent the past several years trying to regain those voters through efforts aided by the state party.

Then came the coronavirus. In-person campaign events were canceled; canvassing was off, as were in-person phone banks and potlucks and the hope that Biden would visit.

Republicans in the county, along with the Trump campaign, have continued to hold in-person events and have been canvassing. The Democrats considered socially distanced events, such as a potluck in the park where attendees sit on blankets spaced six feet apart and eat their own food.

“But if it’s not a potluck, why come?” said Pepin County Democratic Party Chairman Bruce Johnson.

In parts of Wisconsin, as well as other states, the move to virtual campaigning has presented a new challenge: the ability to reach voters where high-speed Internet is not as readily available.

One week ago, the campaign organized a Zoom roundtable featuring Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and several Wisconsin lawmakers, targeting female voters. In the opening minutes, aides attempted to play a Biden campaign ad, which froze for more than a minute and ultimately never played in full.

“This is why we need broadband Internet in Wisconsin!” one of the participants joked.

Over the weekend, Johnson organized a Zoom meeting with local Democrats, trying to sign up local precinct captains. About 20 people attended, a small number but one that gave him hope. But he admitted feeling frustrated.

For Democrats, conversations about organizing often lead to the opposite of virtual: yard signs.

Four years ago, Democrats say it was nearly impossible to order a stack of Clinton signs, while Trump’s campaign was handing out signs, often free, and seeing them plastered across the states. While campaign operatives from both parties argue that yard signs do little for candidates who have widespread name recognition, the crush of Trump signs communicated an unexpected wave of support for him. It became a powerful symbol, similar to the massive crowds that gathered for Trump rallies.

This year, these battleground Democrats want to reverse that dynamic and have been ordering tens of thousands of Biden yard signs. Facebook groups supporting Biden have filled recently with photos of pro-Biden signs spotted in front yards. In Pennsylvania, Erie residents note that the closed factories on 12th Street are no longer plastered with Trump signs as they were in 2016. The county party is distributing 2,500 Biden signs.

“Because of covid, we can’t do all of the things we would have done on the doors, talking to voters in their neighborhoods, and these signs sort of represent the campaign,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes. “They’re important to people.”

In Wisconsin, the winding highways that lead into Pepin County are lined with houses flying Trump flags. In the village of Pepin, a house in the middle of town is draped with Trump flags.

Over the weekend, Johnson received several dozen Biden placards that he had requested, including several large barn signs. One was deployed on Highway 35 near Pepin and several others were positioned in nearby Durand, one by a teachers’ group that had never displayed a campaign sign.

“That’s real progress over where the Clinton campaign was four years ago because in rural areas, signs are a big deal,” Johnson said. “We never could convince them.”

Dan Balz, Scott Clement and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.