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Georgia Democrats grapple with reaching voters in person amid worsening pandemic

Many Democrats say door-to-door campaigning is important as Republicans haven't shied away from canvassing.
Image: Jon Ossoff
Jon Ossoff, right, a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Georgia, takes a selfie with a supporter during a drive-thru yard sign pickup event in Marietta, Ga., on Wednesday.Brynn Anderson / AP

MARIETTA, Ga. — Georgia voters don't even have to get out of their cars these days to meet a candidate for the Senate.

On Wednesday morning in Cobb County, one the largest Atlanta suburbs, dozens of voters slowly inched down the street leading up to the horseshoe driveway in front of Turner Chapel AME Church. Music blared from speakers as Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff chatted with voters while staffers loaded yard signs into cars. Everyone wore masks and kept at a distance.

But some Georgia Democrats are warning that while events like Ossoff's drive-thru yard sign pickup are a creative way to campaign during the coronavirus pandemic, the party will need to rethink its ground game, particularly door-to-door canvassing, if it hopes to win in January.

"A safe, socially distanced return to in-person door-knocking is a must," said Howard Franklin, an Atlanta-based Democratic consultant, adding that the election "post-mortem" suggested that Democrats' decision to halt nearly all in-person campaigning might have led to the party's underperformance in some down-ballot races.

"When you look at the Democratic coalition, they're not all going to have the technology to be on a Zoom call or have the time to jump in their car and run across town. These are luxuries," Franklin said.

Georgia Democrats are celebrating President-elect Joe Biden's narrow win in the state, but nationally, the party is also grappling with losses in well-funded Senate races — from Maine to North Carolina — that have raised the stakes in Georgia's two Senate runoffs on Jan. 5.

Democrats face two well-funded Republican candidates. Ossoff is running against Sen. David Perdue, while Democrat Raphael Warnock is up against Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

What the Democrats' ground game will look like in the Georgia runoffs remains unclear.

Party leaders and campaign staffers say they are starting to have conversations about returning to in-person door-knocking, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last week announced a multimillion-dollar field effort in the state, including on-the-ground organizers.

"I think we have figured out safe ways to campaign in person," Ellen Foster, Ossoff's campaign manager, said in a news briefing Nov. 6. "Every tactic is on the table, and we'll implement what we think is safe in the coming weeks."

In the November election, both Perdue and Loeffler benefited from President Donald Trump's general election operation, when thousands of staffers and volunteers were deployed around the country to reach low-propensity voters. The Trump campaign maintained throughout the election that door-knocking was done at a social distance and that staffers were asked to wear masks.

The Biden campaign, on the other hard, largely shied away from in-person contact with voters out of health concerns. Instead, it relied on supporters to text or call people in their networks to get out the vote. Many Democrats down the ballot followed the campaign's lead.

Decades of political science research suggests that one of the most effective ways to turn out voters is to encourage them to show up at the polls in high-quality face-to-face conversations. Republicans largely have had a monopoly on those in-person conversations.

Even some national Democrats warned that a total abandonment of door-to-door canvassing might harm Democratic efforts.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter shortly after the election that "the decision to stop knocking doors is one people need to grapple with and analyze," pointing to some competitive races in which Democrats bucked the top of the ticket, kept knocking on doors and won.

But even now, few Democrats are ready to offer concrete details or commitments to expand their in-person contact with voters, particularly as their plans have been complicated by the worsening pandemic.

Georgia hit its highest single-day total of new Covid-19 cases in more than three months on Tuesday, a number many fear will continue to climb after the Thanksgiving holiday. Early voting starts shortly after the holiday, on Dec. 14.

"Right now, these conversations are small. They've not been too big yet," said Bianca Keaton, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Democrats, speaking of plans to reach voters face to face.

Keaton said she was hopeful that with the right precautions and personal protective equipment, she would be able to start a "strong, in-person canvassing operation" in Gwinnett County.

"My hope and prayer is that folks continue to do that kind of engagement in a safe manner. The cure for coronavirus in many respects and many other things that have ailed Americans are on the ballot in January," she said.

"The stakes are extremely high, and in-person canvassing is a necessary part of this."