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'A Recipe for Disaster': Democrats Worry Biden Campaign Missing in Action in Battleground States

The Democratic candidate's campaign is sparking concern that a redux of 2016—including a lack of outreach and a dearth of voter excitement—is now underway.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden talks with members of the United Steelworkers union in a supporter's back yard September 9, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Amid mounting criticism that his campaign outreach strategy and messaging lack clarity and and are failing to excite voters, new campaign trail reporting this week reveals increased concern that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's field operation is insufficient—worries eerily similar to those expressed in 2016—in key battleground states.

Reporting from Michigan—where President Donald Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago—TIME magazine's Charlotte Alter noted that, "in one of the most important swing states in the country, Biden's campaign is all but invisible to the naked eye."

While Biden's campaign staff maintains that his lack of on-the-ground appearances is in part due to public health concerns regarding Covid-19, progressive advocates see a potential for history to repeat itself in swing states in November.

The latest reports compound  persistent concerns throughout the campaign that Biden's team has been slow to increase staff and organize both on the ground and in the digital space, and as the former vice president struggles to connect with various voter demographics.

According to Alter in TIME:

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?'" 

In new reporting Thursday from the New York Times, a Biden campaign spokesperson said earlier this month his team had more than 2,500 staff members who were "supporting the organizing across our battleground states," and had made a $100 million "investment" in on-the-ground organizing.

But some, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), just don't see that investment.

"I think we need a more visible Biden campaign presence in [Michigan], that is soup to nuts: from yard signs to surrogates to visits," Slotkin told Alter. "I would love to see a steady drumbeat that made clear, even to the most apolitical person, that Joe Biden cares about Michigan, and he has plan."

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Aside from the visual presence of Biden campaign field offices and yard signs, a tepid voter outreach strategy may hurt the former vice president's chances in November. A report released earlier this week by People's Action proves what many seasoned campaign organizers have experienced themselves for years—that meaningful, empathetic conversations (dubbed "deep listening" or "deep canvassing") with voters can bridge ideological divides, particularly in rural areas which Democrats often write off as solidly Republican-held territory.

"These results are transformative, and tell us a different story about rural America," George Goehl, executive director of People's Action said in a statement. "For so long, people in rural and small-towns have been neglected and cast out because no one took the time to listen to them. But we did, and we've found that compassion and empathy, rather than division and hatred, can lead us to a multiracial democracy that works for all of us."

Critics have also called out the Biden campaign's lack of digital outreach and strategy, noting lackluster social media messaging when it comes to policy issues and outdated links recently discovered on his campaign website.

On the ground in Michigan, Alter reports, organizers are waiting for the Biden campaign to ask for support, particularly as the campaign's current strategy courts moderate Republican voters:

[Lori] Goldman of Fems for Dems says she's ready to dispatch her army of women to knock on doors for Biden, if only the campaign would ask. The Biden campaign calls her for help finding Republican women who might be inclined to vote for Biden ("you might as well ask me to find you a unicorn," she says), but not for help recruiting volunteers to knock doors.

"I want them to ask me, 'Give us a hundred women's names and let us send them out like soldiers into the neighborhoods.'" She's worried that focusing entirely on phone calls and emails means ignoring voters who may not show up in the data. "If you're not in the system," she says, "Joe Biden doesn't even know how to reach you."

Democrats have similar concerns in Pennsylvania. Rogette Harris, the Democratic chair in Dauphin County, told the New York Times, "I do think the polls have tightened because of the lack of presence."

Goldman of Fems for Dems, a grassroots political action group with nearly 9,000 members in Michigan, expressed a similar sentiment. 

"If you're allowed to go to Michaels, or you're allowed to go to Target, I don't see why they can't go to a campaign office," she told Alter. "I'm afraid we're losing. I'm afraid we're going to lose."

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