I am a high-level staffer for a progressive organization in a swing state, and I am terrified. Yes, polls show Vice President Biden with a comfortable lead nationally and in many key states. 

But everything I know about campaigning tells me that we are going to lose. It won’t be because the majority of Americans don’t support Biden or the myriad Senate candidates on the ballot. And it won’t be because the Electoral College is an anti-majoritarian institution stacked against us. (Though it is.) It will be because liberals and Democrats have given up on campaigning out of fear and ignorance.

Let me explain. 

On a good day this election cycle, there are approximately 250 field canvassers walking in the biggest and most diverse city in this swing state. That’s 10,000 doors knocked per day and, if we’re lucky, a few thousand conversations. In an average election year, there would be thousands and thousands more. 

But this is not an average year.

First, Democrats and progressives have long been arguing that 2020 will be the most important election in our lifetimes. The future of our democracy is at stake. The republic might fall

Then, there’s COVID-19. The Biden campaign, Democratic Party, and progressive organizations across the spectrum have committed to “virtual” canvassing as an ethical stance. We believe science, they argue, and science says the virus is real, serious, and contagious. Therefore, field organizing will put everyone at risk. 

That was a sound approach in March and April when we knew little about the virus and spent our time disinfecting groceries and take-out containers. It is a completely irresponsible position in late September. 

Democrats have equated any return to ordinary life as right-wing anti-science. From the internet fringes to the mainstream of the GOP, the right denies the science about COVID-19, minimizes the risks, and says that all will magically return to normal after the election. 

But the logic of liberal inaction is essentially the same as right-wing science denial. In refusing to canvass, Democrats are denying the very scientific expertise they claim to uphold. 

In reality, outdoor canvassing — masked and conducted at a distance — is about as safe or safer than many of the other things we have resumed since the end of the lockdowns: walking the dog, going to the supermarket, taking our kids to the park.  

If you’ve ever canvassed, you know how it goes. Most of the time, you are walking alone from house to house. On a good day, you might have ten conversations. Some will last thirty seconds, others five minutes. 

There is no reason why you can’t have those conversations masked and physically distanced. There is no reason why you can’t bring extra masks to give to people who aren’t wearing them when they answer the door. 

I speak from experience. Since the middle of the summer, hundreds of canvassers have been doing this work in our state; not one of us has contracted COVID-19. We haven’t been lucky. We’ve been safe. We hired an epidemiologist, we developed rigorous screening procedures and protocols, and we enforce them. Every day. Just like businesses and organizations, large and small, are doing nationwide.   

Democrats have to campaign more strenuously and seriously than Republicans. Our coalition is larger and more diverse, and it is made up of more irregular voters. 

There are many reasons why irregular voters don’t vote. Yes, education, time, and income correlate to low participation. But anyone who has ever talked to an irregular voter knows that there is more than socioeconomics at play. People don’t vote when they feel like it won’t make a difference — because they have been systematically organized out of the political process. With the decline of labor unions and civic associations, millions of people, especially working-class and poor people, don't have access to on-the-ground political education that encourages activity and engagement. 

Voters may have made up their minds about Trump, but that doesn’t mean they think it’s worth completing a cumbersome mail-in ballot or waiting in long lines at the polls to do something about it. Irregular voters in particular have many reasons to sit out an election: they have seen change promised year after year; they have other things to worry about; and they don’t know many people who vote. 

And, often, no one talks to them about why they should vote in the first place. 

For two decades, political scientists have found, time and again, that door-to-door canvassing and person-to-person conversations are the best way to turn out irregular voters. The last Democrat to win the presidency built his entire campaign on that basic insight, recruiting millions of volunteers to knock millions of doors

Some organizations — the Biden campaign chief among them — have challenged campaign orthodoxy. They claim that all is not lost, that canvassing is vestigial, and that virtual, “relational organizing” will make up the difference. Recent pieces have attempted to assuage liberal fears by arguing that phone banking and relational organizing can be as effective as door knocking.  

Perhaps they are right. 

But I’m not comfortable using this election as a natural experiment. The stakes are simply too high. Even if the Trump campaign isn’t knocking one million doors per week, we still need to get our voters to turn out. Democrats lost in 2016 because millions of these voters stayed home.

We need to do what every campaigner agreed was essential up until eight months ago: talk to low propensity voters in person. Most won’t be turned out by text messages, or by mail, or by ads. Many can’t be reached by phone at all. 

This is a plea. If you think this election is as important as you say it is, then, please, start acting like it. Listen to the scientists, not the moralists. Wear a mask, practice physical distancing, and get out into the field. 

 

The author works for a 501c4 organization doing field canvassing to elect candidates up and down the ballot in a swing state. 

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