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How Minnesota’s biggest political players are mobilizing voters amid the pandemic

While precautions around COVID-19 have changed how the so-called ground game is being conducted by political groups in Minnesota this year, they haven’t eliminated it. 

Rachel Boeke
Rachel Boeke, the state legislative lead for Moms Demand Action, believes personal campaigning is most effective: “It’s so easy to turn off a negative ad but when you have someone engaging with you — dropping material at your door or texting — it’s personal.”
Courtesy of Everytown for Gun Safety

It doesn’t get the attention of dramatic TV ads or negative campaign mail, but increasingly the work of going door-to-door to mobilize voters can make the difference between a political campaign winning or losing.

Partisans from both sides have said the neighborhood canvassing by the DFL and its allies like Planned Parenthood and gun safety advocates in 2018 greatly boosted turnout in battleground districts, especially those in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.

But then came 2020, with a pandemic that restricts what volunteers and paid staffers can — and are willing — to do. The canvassing shifted to phones via calls and text messages. But while precautions around COVID-19 has changed the so-called ground game, it hasn’t eliminated it.

“None of us have ever waged a campaign or run a party during a pandemic,” said state DFL Chair Ken Martin. “In many ways we’re sort of building a plane as we’re flying it.”

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Martin said the DFL decided very early not to have rallies, in-person phone banks or door knocking out of concerns that it could spread the virus. Just a week ago the party had its annual Humphrey-Mondale Dinner via teleconference.

But he said this week that one of the things that keeps him up at night is wondering whether it was the right decision, especially as he’s watched the state GOP and its candidates do more in public and in person. Martin has called that “reckless” but said he would be more worried if the substitutes — phone calls, text messages, teleconferences — hadn’t allowed the party to maintain the same number of voter contacts as before. 

In fact, phone canvassers report a greater willingness of contacts to answer phones and engage longer, something he attributed to a need for human contact during shutdowns and quarantines. “We’re not door-knocking, but no one should confuse that with the idea that we’re not talking to voters,” Martin said. “The ground game looks different, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have one.” 

The party estimates 3.6 million phone calls have been made within the state and another 1.4 million made from volunteers outside the state to Minnesota voters. Martin estimates that 2,700 people have volunteered.

The state DFL has traditionally been better funded than its rival, partly due to the Republican Party of Minnesota’s decade-long debt that was finally paid off in February. The DFL has a well-worked and valuable voter list that it makes available to endorsed candidates and local affiliates, and its coordinated campaign with the national party and candidates has centralized get-out-the-vote efforts.

The other DFL advantage is that it has affiliated groups that not only raise money but can mobilize volunteers: the AFL-CIO and its Working America affiliate, which works with non-unionized workers; the Service Employees International Union; state and local public employee unions; Planned Parenthood; NARAL; Everytown for Gun Safety; and Faith in Minnesota. All have voter identification, persuasion and get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at their members and supporters.

How much has the Minnesota GOP improved its ground game?

The 2018 election cycle emphasized the benefit of ground-game politics, in a positive way for Democrats and a negative way for Republicans. In a non-presidential election year, voter turnout approached presidential election levels in Minnesota. Two statistics likely still haunt Republican activists and candidates: nine House GOP incumbents lost despite winning more votes —  in most cases, a lot more votes — than they had won their districts with in 2014; and nine GOP seats were lost by an average of 400 votes per district — out of 20,000 or so cast.

The bet this year is that while the DFL might grow its vote, it has less room to do so given its large 2018 turnout. The GOP, however, should see its electorate grow because of the presidential election.

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Minnesota State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said her priorities since winning the job in 2017 have been to pay off the party debt, increase its reputation with the national party and affiliate groups, and improve the ground game. In 2018, she estimated that the party made a million direct voter contacts — not as much as the DFL but more than the GOP had managed before.

“That set the groundwork and started to re-establish the party’s operational role and it started to lift us out of this bottom-dwelling place that we had been in for a decade,” Carnahan said. In 2020, the party has also benefited from Minnesota being a targeted state by the Trump re-election campaign, something she attributes both to the closeness of the presidential race in Minnesota in 2016 and her relationship-building with national party leaders.

Carnahan now estimates the party is close to four million voter contacts so far this election. The GOP has been doing more in-person campaigning throughout the summer than the DFL, opening offices, holding meetings and door knocking. Martin criticized the GOP for some of those activities in September, since Republicans have been far less likely than Democrats to exhibit social distancing and mask-wearing at events, something highlighted by the president’s own infection and the high number of infections of those around him.

Carnahan asserts that she is cognizant of pandemic protocols. She said she door-knocks with a mask, steps back from the door after knocking and leaves literature on stairs if the residents prefers. But she said she tells volunteers that she expects them to knock and talk, not just drop brochures and leave. 

“If you can drop off a piece of literature at a door you can knock on a door,” she said.

Minnesota State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan, right, states the party has been doing more in-person campaigning throughout the summer than the DFL.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Republican Party
Minnesota State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan, right, states the party has been doing more in-person campaigning throughout the summer than the DFL.
Carnahan lamented after the 2018 election that the GOP did not have the same types of coalition members that the Democrats did, groups that will knock on doors and do the type of work that finds like-minded voters and gets them to vote. That hasn’t changed significantly this election, but there have been a few efforts to address the divide: last weekend, Young Republicans from eight states converged on the 7th Congressional District to help GOP nominee Michelle Fischbach hit 4,000 doors and make 6,000 phone and text contacts. State YR chair Debjyoti “DD” Dwivedy said the group is planning additional in-person efforts in addition to its own phone-banking between now and election day.

And Carnahan said her party will take part in the GOP’s National Weekend of Action this weekend, part of a $60 million national GOP get-out-the-vote effort.

Coalition members change how they campaign

Tim Stanley, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund, said the organization decided in March that it would not be going door-to-door this election, eliminating one of its most potent tactics from 2018. But it has used the pandemic restrictions to change the way it does organizing, voter identification and get out the vote. “The goals are the same but getting to those goals changed,” he said. The organization has had coordinators doing virtual organizing across the state and has recently added additional staff. 

Planned Parenthood both provides health clinic focused on reproductive care, including abortions, and is an advocate for pro-choice laws and policies. That includes lobbying and helping elect candidates — via independent expenditures — who agree with their positions. But a big part of those expenditures go toward grassroots organizing. With door-to-door work off-limits, the organization has shifted to virtual work. While it estimates it spent $2 million in 2018, it has spent $1.5 million this year, with the difference attributable to the lack of a governor’s race in this election.

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Like other Democratic-leaning organizations, Planned Parenthood is focused on shifting control of the state Senate from the GOP to the DFL and is targeting a handful of GOP-held seats in St. Cloud, the Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester. But Stanley said Planned Parenthood has long been active in the Rochester area, where two GOP-held battleground seats are located: the organization has had a clinic there for 45 years, and it has a large base of supporters in a city that’s home to thousands of health care workers.

Last weekend, Young Republicans from eight states converged on the 7th Congressional District to help GOP nominee Michelle Fischbach, center, hit 4,000 doors and have 6,000 phone and text contacts.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Young Republicans
Last weekend, Young Republicans from eight states converged on the 7th Congressional District to help GOP nominee Michelle Fischbach, center.
Planned Parenthood is also part of an effort funded by the national organization WIN Justice — which the organization founded with the SEIU, the Color of Change PAC, and Community Change Action — to focus on infrequent voters, especially young voters and people of color. WIN Justice raises money, but the affiliate organizations do the on-the-ground work. In addition to Planned Parenthood, Faith in Minnesota and Unidos are state partners with WIN Justice in Minnesota and the state is one of four — along with Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin — that have been targeted.

Planned Parenthood’s goal for 2020 is to contact 626,000 people through phone calls, 34,300 through text messages, 2,000 through handwritten letters and 13,740 through relational organizing.

The latest tool: relational organizing

Stanley said the staff and volunteers can’t wait to get back at the doors, calling Minnesota a “canvass-friendly state.” But some of what it developed this election will stick around. One is the way it has broadened in numbers and geography the number of people who have volunteered. Another is the use of what is called relational organizing and the applications that put the concept into action. 

The term refers to activists and volunteers tapping into their personal contacts and making appeals to family and friends. Apps like Blue Squad then take a volunteer’s contact list and compare it to large voter databases. That provides political, demographic and registration information to let the volunteer better target messages. The apps can even gather publicly available election information to tell the volunteer whether the contact is registered to vote, whether they have signed up for a mail ballot and even whether they have mailed that ballot.

“You can go to your friend and say, ‘I see you haven’t voted yet. I can send you the link, etc.’” Stanley said. “That is a tool that we have greatly expanded. It allows our volunteers to exponentially increase the number of people they can reach as a credible interpreter.”

“It’s people texting people, not a robotext,” said Emily Bisek, regional communications director. “It’s a way to lead to really fruitful conversations.”

A tentative move back to in-person campaigning

Everytown for Gun Safety is a national organization largely funded by former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Its grassroots affiliate, Moms Demand Action, has chapters in every state. Last weekend, it held a Zoom rally before volunteers walked neighborhoods in a handful of swing legislative districts.

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It is also sponsoring direct mail, phone banking and text banking, but Rachel Boeke, the state legislative lead for Moms Demand Action, said she thinks personal campaigning is most effective. “It’s so easy to turn off a negative ad but when you have someone engaging with you — dropping material at your door or texting — it’s personal,” she said.

The DFL will also start back with in-person campaigning, something the Biden campaign announced two weeks ago, just before President Trump was infected with the coronavirus. “We’re gonna probably in the final weeks ease into a little bit more in-person campaigning,” Martin said. 

He said the party would train volunteers to door-knock their own neighborhoods but with pandemic protocols. “There’s a lot of hoops people will have to go through if they want to go out and knock on doors,” Martin said. 

But he said he has volunteers who are anxious to do it, people who are suffering from what he called “phone fatigue.”

“People want to have that human interaction, that face-to-face contact with voters,” he said. “But we still have an obligation to keep people safe.”