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In a tight Virginia race, Covid concerns still make campaigning difficult for Democrats

While Republicans have more or less kept up normal operations, Democrats face anxiety from volunteers and elaborate safety procedures.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The pandemic took away Tembi Hove’s last job, as a server at a fancy hotel in Atlanta. And it complicates her current work, knocking doors with her union in Virginia to get out the vote for Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead of Tuesday's election.

But she said it's worth it.

“When you're at their front door, the fact that you drove to come to their neighborhood, to knock on their door, to stand on their step and talk to them,” said Hove, a member the hospitality union UNITE HERE, which enforces strict Covid-19 protocols for its 200 canvassers in Virginia, "I believe that makes all the difference to help push them to go out and vote.”

The pandemic has accelerated the transition to digital politicking, especially for Democrats, whose volunteers and voters tend to be more concerned about the coronavirus than Republicans, but party leaders say there's still no replacement for old fashioned face-to-face conversations.

"There is increased hesitancy, but most of 2020, Democrats didn't knock doors at all," said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, after he spoke to volunteers heading out to knock doors here Saturday morning. "And in the end, I think that hurt us because Republicans never stopped. And so we've learned that lesson."

Harrison said that ahead of Georgia's twin Senate runoff elections in January, he called now-Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and told them they had to find a way to knock doors safely and believes their decision to do so was critical in their victories.

"I think that was the difference-maker," Harrison said. "Our voters need that personal touch."

While Republicans more or less kept up their normal ground game throughout the pandemic, Democrats last year halted all in-person operations for months during the height of the presidential campaign.

Even now, in Virginia's critical gubernatorial race, some progressives say they're still having a difficult time getting people to volunteer in person, though vaccines have helped ease concerns.

“We have noticed a lot more people eager to help, but not necessarily eager to knock on doors. It's been tough,” said Maya Castillo, the political director for New Virginia Majority, which organizes communities of color.

Castillo said groups of volunteers she spoke with last month wanted to know if she would canvass, even though she's immunocompromised, and only had their concerns allayed when she said she would.

"We're trying to address concerns, but we're also trying to be pretty blunt about the urgency of this election," she said. "With all of the digital ways that people are being bombarded, I think the human connection is really really important — especially now during a pandemic."

The Virginia Democratic Party said Covid concerns have not hurt their get-out-the-vote efforts, adding that they knocked on more than 1 million doors since the start of the campaign. Still, four years ago, the party said it had visited almost 2 million homes at a similar point in the state's gubernatorial race.

Republicans have largely not had to deal with Covid anxiety, reflecting a view on the pandemic that influences not only how they govern, but campaign. Republican Glenn Youngkin's campaign declined to comment.

While the McAuliffe campaign requires staff to be fully vaccinated and abide by strict protocols — job listings for even down-ballot Democratic campaigns list job requirements including "follow COVID Social distancing guidelines and safety protocols" — Youngkin opposes vaccine mandates and holds some indoor events where few wear masks.

When they happen to run into teams of Republicans working the same neighborhood, some masked-up Democratic canvassers said they look at their rules-flouting counterparts with contempt and, perhaps, a tinge as jealousy.

“We have masks in case people forgot to bring their masks. The Republicans tell people they don't need masks, go right in,” said Jessica Nichols, a Democratic precinct captain who has been working her party’s table outside an early vote location in Alexandria.

Even to work the table, the party requires volunteers to be fully vaccinated, and Nichols said she and nearly everyone else has received a booster shot.

"Covid is really scary, so we've just been really careful," she said. "Having a vaccine just changed everything. And now with boosters, people are feeling a lot safer."

Getting people to volunteer as door-to-door salesmen in their free time has never been easy. And some are excited about how Covid has, like with work and school and so much more, sped the already rapid growth of remote alternatives.

“We're making sure that anybody who has a phone and a laptop and internet access can make calls or write letters to Virginia voters. And that hybrid approach to organizing is where we're going to have to go in 2022 and beyond,” said David Berrios, a veteran Democratic field organizer who is now the head of community at Swing Left.

Swing Left, which grew out of the so-called resistance to former President Donald Trump as a way for liberals in places without competitive races to have an impact in battleground areas, said it and its affiliate group have written four times as many letters and made three times as many phone calls to Virginia voters as compared to the last statewide election, though Berrios acknowledged getting people to knock on doors was a "bit of a slog" until recently.

"It’s just so, so scalable. You're able to talk to so many voters through so many different mediums and touches,” Berrios said. “I believe in the importance of in-person touches and I think they're critical, but standing up a canvassing operation, the cost per voter is high, and some campaigns may not have that luxury.”

The Biden campaign’s decision to stop in-person organizing last year supercharged a long-running debate about the most effective way to contact voters.

With more ways than ever to reach voters, from text messages to targeted Instagram ads, is the laborious and expensive work of going door to door really worth it?

The question is not just an academic one, but one of critical importance to both parties, who conduct extensive post-election research on the impact of various tactics, which they guard as trade secrets.

Publicly available academic research has found mixed results about the impact of any campaign tactic. But in general, face-to-face interactions are still widely regarded as the gold standard.

"A piece of mail, a radio commercial, a TV commercial talks at you. They don't talk to you and answer your questions," said D. Taylor, the international president of UNITE HERE, which deployed thousands of canvassers last year without any known Covid outbreaks and pushed the Biden campaign restart in-person operations. "Phone calls, people don't pick up. Digital ads, people scroll past."

"We never understood why people weren't on the doors last year. You can do this safely and responsibly," Taylor added. "Certainly the Republicans understand the importance of in-person canvassing because they're doing it."