The team fanned out, talking to voters or — more often — leaving door hangers that promised Trump would “build a stronger North Carolina” and “stop the radical left from destroying America.” When Trump selects a new Supreme Court nominee, that choice is expected to be added to the mix.
“The Supreme Court is an incredibly motivating factor for our voters,” said Mike Reed, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Once President Trump selects a nominee, you can expect this to be a major point of persuasion in our get-out-the-vote operation.”
The Democratic get-out-the-vote effort was curtailed months ago by the coronavirus pandemic and remains far less visible, which has drawn laments from voters and political activists.
“I know it’s such a struggle because it’s such a Trump thing to do, but I would love to see if they could come do more foot traffic here in North Carolina,” said Jessica Maldonado, a 32-year-old educator who lives outside Charlotte and supports Joe Biden. “I can feel the difference. There is such a strong movement, and people are so passionate about the election. . . . I just feel like it’s a missed opportunity.”
The need is particularly great when it comes to Black voters, community leaders said.
“Outreach has always been door-knocking. It’s been going to somebody’s church. I mean, that’s how you campaign in the South,” said Angella Dunston, who was Hillary Clinton’s African American outreach coordinator in North Carolina in 2016. “For us, we still have that yearning or that inkling for that personal touch.”
The on-the-ground efforts on behalf of Trump and the Biden team’s reluctance to do the same has created an asymmetry to this campaign season, not just in this competitive state but around the country.
Republicans are sending platoons of volunteers to voters’ homes to chat and leave literature at their doors. Democrats are not. Skittish about personal contact, Biden has relied since March on digital organizing and television ads, counting on outside groups to fill some of the in-person gaps.
But he also has engaged in creative ways to expand his reach, weighing in on local issues and flooding the state’s Black churches with videos highlighting what his presidency would mean for that powerful Democratic voter group.
On Wednesday, Biden will return to North Carolina for the first time since early this year, following pressure from local Democrats who, like others in key states, have worried that the former vice president’s campaign has lost a sense of urgency.
Though Election Day is six weeks away, more than 40 states allow some form of in-person voting before Nov. 3, and polls show that most Americans want to vote early or by mail. Ballots will be available to voters in roughly two dozen states by the end of the month.
Voting started first in North Carolina, where absentee ballots went out to voters who requested them starting Sept. 4. By Sept. 20, about 13 percent of registered voters had requested a ballot, and less than 16 percent of those requests came from GOP voters, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Trump and his team have aggressively courted voters, with the president even suggesting during a telerally with North Carolina voters that supporters here vote twice — a message that has alarmed election officials who scrambled to remind residents that would be illegal. Trump visited the state three times this month, including a rally in Fayetteville on Saturday, where the campaign flouted state health rules by positioning thousands of people in proximity, with many not wearing masks. When Biden has traveled, he has held small events designed to follow state health regulations to a T.
The difference between the campaigns’ approaches in part reflects a gulf in partisan attitudes toward the virus. Surveys show that Democrats are more likely to worry about spreading covid-19, while Republicans are more eager to reopen schools and businesses. That has not silenced Democratic concerns that Biden is leaving an opening for Trump among the small pool of genuinely undecided voters, as each side works to turn out their own.
“If I could say anything to his campaign, it’s: Don’t take anybody for granted. Don’t leave any rock unturned,” Dunston said. “You better be figuring out a way to connect with potential voters.”
'People want to talk'
Some elements of normal life have returned in North Carolina, even as the pandemic persists. Shoppers packed a farmers market in Raleigh on a recent Sunday. Restaurant reservations at local bistros on a Saturday night were filled. The seven-day average of new coronavirus infections has fallen to 12 new cases per 100,000 residents from a high of 19.5 per 100,000 in mid-July, state data shows.
Nonetheless, Biden’s team has stuck with the approach taken in the worst days of the pandemic.
“We have to make sure people are healthy,” L.T. McCrimmon, Biden’s North Carolina state director, said in explaining the decision to forgo in-person campaigning. “We cannot expose people unjustly to covid. I tell my team this every day: What is best for North Carolina? And the best thing for North Carolina is to ensure that our covid numbers stay low.”
As Biden has relied on a virtual campaign, Trump’s organization has knocked on roughly 845,000 doors in North Carolina, some of the 6.1 million voter contacts the operation has made in the state. They halted in-person campaigning from mid-March to the end of June, before resuming.
“It’s important that they hear it from the local community — who are going through the same trials and tribulations,” explained Michael Vazquez, a Trump volunteer and Army retiree who regularly goes door to door to plead with Republicans to vote. “When you get people out there knocking doors and just seeing them face to face, they can relate to you. And I think that’s important.”
In North Carolina, Biden staff and volunteers have made about 5 million phone calls, according to the campaign. They’ve held 2,500 virtual phone banks and set up 10 person coalition teams to work with various communities, including veterans, faith leaders and students at historically Black colleges and universities.
Molly Ritner, the Biden campaign’s deputy states director, said that as the virus shut down much of the country in March, some soul-searching arose about whether the goals of a traditional in-person operation could be accomplished digitally.
“The important piece is to be able to talk to voters,” Ritner said. “And what we found is that we are able to have those conversations through the phone or through text because many people have changed the way that they interact with the world.”
Some groups pushing for Biden’s election have openly questioned the decision to forgo in-person contacts. D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, a hospitality union conducting a door-knocking program in Nevada, Arizona and Florida, asked the Biden campaign to “reexamine” how they are thinking about a field program.
“We have a very strict health and safety protocol,” Taylor told Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), during an online campaign event. “It can be done — it’s done differently — it can be done. Because people want to talk, not just talk at them.”
The absence of on-the-ground campaigning is felt so acutely by some Democrats because it was seen as the key to victories for the party’s last president. In 2012, the Obama campaign bragged that it made roughly 7 million door knocks on the final day of the campaign and determined that the method was far more effective than phone calls in turning out Democrats who don’t frequently vote.
Biden’s campaign has begun deploying new tactics to compensate. In rural areas, organizers drive to volunteers’s homes, dropping off and picking up lists of voters for them to call, following what the campaign dubs “paper routes.” And it plans to open distribution centers in states such as North Carolina where voters can pick up signs.
Underscoring its eye on local issues, the campaign released a statement from the former vice president lamenting the “horrific death” of Ryan Hendrix, a Henderson County sheriff's deputy who was fatally shot while attempting to arrest a suspect. Hundreds in the state’s rural southwest corner came to the sheriff’s department office for a community memorial service to mourn his killing.
'Mobilize the vote'
Biden’s on-the-ground decisions may most dramatically collide with its need to turn out the Black vote. North Carolina, where more than 20 percent of the voting-age population is African American, has more Black voters than any of the swing states. But Black voters have been disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus, and the methods typically used to mobilize them rely heavily on the in-person campaigning with the most risk.
“The thing that’s handicapping us right now is obviously the pandemic,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D), a top Biden surrogate here who represents the northeast swath of the state, where Biden’s team is counting on a massive turnout of Black voters if he wants to re-create Barack Obama’s narrow 2008 win here.
“We depend on organization to mobilize the vote,” said Butterfield. “It will happen.”
In the meantime, Biden’s campaign released a video to Black churches timed to the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Invoking former congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spoke at the march and died over the summer, Biden urged churchgoers to “turn our grief into purpose” and “turn our faith into action.” It was distributed to more than 2,000 churches in North Carolina, according to the Biden campaign.
The Rev. Jonathan C. Augustine, who played the video at Saint Joseph AME Church in Durham, said he’s trying to keep his flock excited about voting. “We don’t want the pandemic to curb enthusiasm about something that is so important,” he said.
He’s also participating in a national effort aimed at making sure that Black men vote. Before an Oct. 9 deadline, he has directed church staff and volunteers to slip voter registration forms to the people who come Wednesdays for free meals. And despite the pandemic, he plans to use church vans to offer free rides to the polls, a traditional way of turning out Black voters and seniors.
Other groups are similarly finding ways to reach voters. On a recent weekend, more than 100 student athletes at North Carolina State University donned black shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and marched near the campus.
At one point Kevin Keatts, the head men’s basketball coach, took the bull horn: “You don’t like what’s going on? Vote.”
A dozen miles away, in Durham, one group organized a car parade to gin up support for the election. And in Fayetteville, another group handed out 250 meals, and as they did, activists and pastors offered voter registration forms.
McCrimmon acknowledged that these pop-up events aren’t connected to the Biden campaign but stressed that the goals are similar. “These people are very supportive of our candidacy,” she said. “It’s one team, one mission. . . . It doesn’t always have to have Biden-Harris on it, but we’re one group.”
The Trump in-person effort, however, is far more targeted and centrally organized.
In Cumberland County, Trump volunteers used an app to figure out which doors to knock on and which ones to skip. Anna Blue, 46, a first-time volunteer, admitted she found the targeting difficult at first — she was so excited to spread Trump’s message that her instinct was to go to every door.
She said people were hesitant to open their doors earlier in the summer, but now voters — even those supporting Biden — offer her water and chat on their front porches.
“They did not approach too closely; they wore masks. It didn’t bother me,” said Mike Williams, 63, a librarian who was doing yardwork when Trump campaign volunteers stopped by his home.
He’s going to back Biden, though he said he hasn’t heard a peep from the former vice president’s campaign.
Chelsea Janes, Scott Clement and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.