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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Biden Campaign Needs To Get Its Ass In Gear Right Now

A worrying complacency has led Biden to avoid even attempting ground operations. Why would anyone take this risk given the stakes of the election?

This is a winnable election for Democrats. The centerpiece of Donald Trump’s reelection pitch, his “beautiful” economy, is in ruins. He almost certainly caused over 100,000 needless deaths from a horrible disease, one which he deliberately lied to the public about (and then lied about lying about). He has failed to provide necessary relief for people who need it and denies the very existence of the giant climate catastrophe that is the most important issue of our time. He should be universally loathed and chased from office by a united populace. 

And yet: Trump could get reelected. The seemingly unthinkable could happen, just as the seemingly unthinkable happened in 2016. Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has been slowly eroding, even though he remains comfortably ahead in the polls.

Comfortable? Never get comfortable. Because when you’re comfortable you screw up. Hillary was comfortable in 2016. She felt confident enough to campaign in Arizona instead of Wisconsin. Biden feels comfortable enough in 2020 that he has canceled all in-person campaigning, even though Trump volunteers are knocking on a million doors a week. Biden and the DNC “aren’t sending volunteers or staffers to talk with voters at home, and don’t anticipate doing anything more than dropping off literature unless the crisis abates.” Biden has no ground operation whatsoever, even in critical swing states. Consider this report from TIME about Biden’s “invisible campaign” in Michigan:

The reason Sabbe [a voter looking for a place he can pick up a sign] can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online. The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here. Biden’s field operation in this all-important state is being run through the Michigan Democratic Party’s One Campaign, which is also not doing physical canvassing or events at the moment. When I ask Biden campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials how many people they have on the ground in Michigan, one reply stuck out: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’” 

Now, before we get to the question of whether public safety necessitates abandoning all canvassing, can we at least admit that declining to confirm the locations of the places where swing state voters can pick up a sign is extremely not good? (The exact same complaints were made about the Hillary campaign.) A friend of mine drove down the west coast of Florida last week and said that every community he passed through had one of these Trump stores located prominently: 

You know what Biden should do? Go rent the stores directly opposite and put up a big sign with the death toll from coronavirus and the wildfires, and big quotes from Donald Trump lying about the virus. Will they do that? No. Do they have any of these places? Well, if they did, I bet they wouldn’t confirm their locations!

Let us talk about the coronavirus pandemic. You and I both know that the coronavirus is a serious public health crisis that also can provide a convenient all-purpose excuse for things. “Sorry, coronavirus” is a useful get-out-of-jail-free card. The Biden campaign can respond to any criticism of its ground operation (“What’s a ground operation?” a Democratic official literally told TIME) by invoking the pandemic. 

But it is not enough to mention coronavirus. We also have to think about whether and how the public health explanation works. It does not, for instance, work as a defense for lacking places to pick up campaign signs. If you can get a Starbucks coffee during a pandemic, you can get a Joe Biden campaign sign. AOC is organizing regular census tabling events in her district, volunteers all masked and socially distant, because they’re important. 

How about in-person canvassing? As I say, the assumption is that it’s nuts, but we need to question our assumptions. Indoor campaign events with crowds are obviously unsafe, which is why it’s totally irresponsible for Trump to keep doing them. Knocking on doors isn’t nearly as dangerous. When canvassers wear gloves and masks, and step well back from the door, short in-person interactions actually pose very little risk. Not zero risk, of course, but some activities are so important that we believe small amounts of corona risk make them worth it. This was true for street protests and it is true for canvassing. (It should be noted that during the primary, Biden was perfectly fine with encouraging people to do far more dangerous things than distanced canvassing, making the claim that he sees this as necessary for public health seem absurd.) 

Let us remember the stakes of this election, please. It is the real last chance to do anything about climate change. Trump would end democracy if he could. He’d prefer there not even be elections anymore, and he will certainly do everything in his power to keep them from being free and fair. The brutal immigration system will get far, far worse. Trump is a nightmare, and there are seriously deadly human consequences that will come from his re-election.

Those consequences must be weighed against the risks that come with canvassing. Some down-ballot Democrats have started doing door-knocking (as safely as possible) since they realize that if the election is lost because we fought it with one hand tied behind our backs, the knowledge that we had a principled opposition to canvassing will not be much comfort when Trump ends democracy. If someone doesn’t want to open the door to anyone, they won’t, but it is critical that candidates’ representatives actually show up if they expect voters to show up for them. Otherwise plenty of people who might have voted for the Democrat will be lost. 

Let us recognize something else: the fact that the Biden campaign is doing no in-person campaigning should make us very wary of the polls. We have never before had an election in which one candidate simply gives up on canvassing. There is a chance it might affect turnout, don’t you think? Perhaps it will turn out that while more people said they’d vote for Biden, they don’t actually end up doing it. On election day in Wisconsin, do not be surprised if giant busloads of Trump voters show up at the polls. “But where are our people? There are more of them! The polls!” Democrats will say. Ah, but you didn’t actually get them out. Pollsters cannot actually tell you whether this will have an impact because it’s never been tested before. We will actually have a very interesting bit of political science data after this election on how much “ground game” counts. Unfortunately, we might also have a catastrophic second Trump term.

Do not underestimate Donald Trump. I have tried to say this over and over since 2016. Donald Trump is wilier than you may think. He doesn’t know anything, but he is an absolutely merciless fighter who will pull every possible trick to destroy you. Biden is not just trying to win the game with an arm tied behind his back, but to win it against a person who cheats every way he can. Assume Trump is likely to win and then do whatever it takes to change that. He can be beaten. The circumstances are very favorable to the challenger. But if anyone can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it’s the Democratic Party, and I remember 2016. 

Do not tell me that the polls are better for Biden than they were for Clinton. This is the party line, and TIME quotes party officials giving the usual sunny assessment before reporting that “top Democrats believe the race is closer than the polls suggest, and some are privately urging the Biden campaign and state Democrats to reconsider physical canvassing.” The fact is that if the Democrats lose this time, it will be for different reasons than they lost last time. Biden might not make Clinton’s errors, but he can make his own. Perhaps not realizing how quickly polls can change in a moment of chaos will be his error. Perhaps Trump’s numbers will start to shift as if by magic during October, and nobody can figure out why, until they remember that Trump has a massive ground operation trying to find every person in America and convince them to vote for Donald Trump while Biden has none of that. A new error, discovered far too late. 

Election tip: if you want to win an election, assume you are probably going to lose, and act like you need to change that. It never hurts to win by too much, but it’s devastating to lose knowing there was more you could have done. In this election, everything that can be done must be done. The stakes are very high. Biden may well “coast to victory” and I hope he does. But why take this reckless gamble when there’s no such thing as getting too many votes? (In fact, Biden should want to win by as much as possible to make it harder for Trump to claim the election was rigged and remove any chance he might try to cling to power.)

  The Biden campaign says it can “compensate for the lack of in-person canvassing with phone calls, texts, new forms of digital organizing, and virtual meet-ups with voters.” I would be more inclined to buy into the wisdom of Biden’s digital-only campaign if Biden’s digital campaign was impressive, but it isn’t. Susan Sarandon recently pointed out that the campaign’s online volunteering tools didn’t work. I myself became worried when I saw a voter tweeting to Joe Biden that she wanted to donate money and seemingly not getting a response from the campaign. An oversight? I hope so. 

This election is winnable. I cannot emphasize that enough. Pessimism, the feeling that Trump will definitely win, only makes that outcome more likely by demoralizing people and keeping them from fighting. If the Democrats manage to lose under these conditions despite how winnable it is, this will be the political fuck-up of the century. It will show that not a single lesson was learned from 2016, that they will do the same damn thing over and over again until they are devoured by the flames. I do not want this to happen, even though I hate Joe Biden. But in order to avoid disaster, the Biden campaign needs to get its ass in gear and start fighting this campaign like the fate of the country is on the line, because it is. 

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