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The coronavirus ground game gamble hits the homestretch

Nowhere else may the pandemic-year outreach contrast between the campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden be more apparent in the race's closing days than in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Election Proceeds Despite Stay-At-Home Order During Coronavirus Pandemic
Voters wait in line to enter a polling place at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee on April 7.Scott Olson / Getty Images

MILWAUKEE — Nowhere else may the pandemic-year ground game contrast between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden be more apparent than in Wisconsin's Waukesha County, part of the trio of suburban counties surrounding Milwaukee.

Trump won this part of the state in 2016, but his margin was significantly below that of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. It is in counties like Waukesha — which has itself become a notorious catchword in some quarters for any potentially contest-defining bellwether area — where Biden hopes to cut into Trump's previous margin and reclaim the state.

In late September, the Trump campaign's website advertised a "MAGA Meet-Up" at the Republican Party of Waukesha County office to "connect with other supporters in the area and recruit new volunteers."

Although the online description nodded to a virtual event option, it was unclear how to take advantage of it. When NBC News arrived at the office, dozens of maskless supporters were crowded inside.

Two miles down the road at the Waukesha County Democratic Party office, only staff members were allowed inside. An announcement splashed across its website homepage read: "Please do not come to office for Biden/Harris yard signs. They will be delivered to you when they come in."

Even as the Biden campaign has adjusted its approach this fall in some battleground states, adding more traditional grassroots outreach back into the mix to address supporters' concerns, the voter contact strategies of the two campaigns in the homestretch still largely represent the candidates' divergent messaging about the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the different paths to victory they are pursuing.

An average week of Trump campaign events in Wisconsin this fall might include a "Women for Trump MAGA Meet-Up" on Wednesday, a rally with the president on Thursday, a "Defend the Police" event on Friday and door-knocking on Saturday.

For Biden events, you'd have to go online.

Late last month, as the coronavirus began spreading rapidly in Wisconsin, NBC News spent a week in the Milwaukee suburbs, attending various Trump campaign events. At nearly all of them, few people wore masks and no one practiced social distancing, even at indoor venues. In conversations with dozens of attendees, no one identified as a first-time Trump voter.

There were no in-person Biden events to attend.

Trump's in-person events appeared designed to appeal to his existing base, offering his supporters a taste of pre-pandemic normalcy free of mask mandates. Democrats argue that the strategy isn't intended to welcome independent or moderate Republican voters who are more inclined to recognize the severity of the virus. Biden's predominantly virtual ground game, in contrast, is a constant reminder, they argue, that the coronavirus has upended nearly every aspect of daily life under the leadership of the Trump administration and that only one candidate is responding appropriately.

"Republicans are knocking on doors and holding these in-person, indoor, no-mask rallies. I think voters trying to figure out who can get them out of this mess can just look at the two campaigns and see clear as day, if you want to end the coronavirus crisis, you've got to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris," said Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

"Given that there is a pandemic going on, would voters who are concerned about the pandemic rather have a stranger come to their door? Or would they rather get a phone call? The impact of virtual campaigning is higher, and in-person campaigning could actually be counterproductive," he said.

Joe Postl, 73, a retiree from Ozaukee County and a committed Biden voter, said he agreed with Biden's approach.

"I'm not sure I would necessarily be opposed to someone knocking on my door, but it's certainly not something I am hoping happens or that I think needs to happen," he said. "I watch the news. I see who the president is. I see who Biden is."

And, at least on paper, Biden's lead over Trump is growing.

The NBC News National Polling Average as the week began showed Biden leading by double digits. Biden also leads in key battleground states, although generally by smaller margins. An early October poll from Marquette Law School showed Biden with 46 percent compared to Trump's 41 percent among likely voters in Wisconsin, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percent. Trump won the state in 2016 by less than 1 percentage point.

Still, decades of political science research has suggested that one of the most effective ways to turn out voters is with high-quality, face-to-face conversations encouraging people to show up to the polls. For months, Republicans had a monopoly on those in-person conversations. The Trump campaign began touting that it had knocked on more than 2 million doors around the country. In Wisconsin alone, it said, it had hit 10 million "volunteer voter contacts." It is impossible to independently verify the numbers.

"The Trump campaign has had a permanent presence in Wisconsin since 2016, connecting directly with voters about President Trump's record of success, and we're the only campaign in the state currently asking Wisconsinites for their votes in person," said Samantha Zager, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign.

Jennifer Barden, 41, an industrial distributor and a Trump supporter from Portage County, a reliably red rural part of the state, said she thought the president should take advantage of the fact that Biden "won't come out of the basement."

"If you're running for president, why wouldn't you have a rally?" she said. The coronavirus "is a real thing, but I think it's been taken way to the extreme to scare people. You could walk across the highway and get hit by a car. Everybody has an expiration date. It's just a matter of when."

Republicans haven't been the only ones to suspect that a more traditional ground game might give the president an edge. After a summer stretch when some national Democrats began to publicly fret about the nearly invisible Biden operation, his campaign announced early this month that it would begin door-to-door canvassing in Nevada, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — key battleground states that haven't had drastic spikes in numbers of Covid-19 cases.

"We're now expanding on our strategy in a targeted way that puts the safety of communities first and foremost and helps us mobilize voters who are harder to reach by phone now that we're in the final stretch and now that Americans are fully dialed-in and ready to make their voices heard," Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said in a statement at the time, adding that door-knockers would be provided with personal protective equipment and that their temperatures would be checked.

But in places like Wisconsin, where virus infection rates are at an all-time high with less than a month left before the election, in-person voter contact may never be an option for the Biden campaign.

New research suggests that it might not necessarily be a negative.

Democrats have increasingly relied this cycle on a strategy known as "relational organizing," which involves leveraging supporters' personal social networks to mobilize the vote. In practice, it means supporters use a campaign app to text family, friends and neighbors to encourage them to vote.

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Aaron Schein, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University's Data Science Institute who is the leader of a new study of voter mobilization tactics, said friend-to-friend texts may be just as effective as door-to-door canvassing.

"It looks like that friends just texting each other has a similar effect as sending a stranger to someone's door," Schein said. "The theory that has emerged is that the more personal the tactic, the better. Usually when you send someone door to door, it is strangers that are making the contact."

"I think it is very good news for the Biden campaign," he said.

Democrats in Wisconsin also appear to be voting absentee in far larger numbers than Republicans, giving the party a leg up in early votes heading into Election Day.

Then again, there are downsides to the lack of face-to-face contact. The campaign has less control over who gets contacted in relational organizing. There's a risk, Schein said, of recruiting a bunch of hyperpartisan people who were going to vote regardless of outreach while missing out on harder-to-reach or undecided voters.

Sue Nelles, 60, an account representative at a credit card company, could be one of those voters. Nelles, who is from Lincoln County, a rural district that went for Trump in 2016, said she couldn't stand the president and was likely going to vote for Biden — even though she "still [hadn't] really heard much from" him.

But she wasn't mourning the more intense engagement of a typical campaign year. "I think the virus is serious. I have not been leaving my home much since it hit," she said. "So, no, I don't feel like I am missing campaign events."