-Early this year in South Philadelphia, three liberal activists who lead the Tuesdays with Toomey protest group met over wine and cheese and mapped out a three-year plan. It was their vision for how they would fight President Donald Trump’s policies, defeat him in November, and then oust Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).
Within weeks the plan was out the window, thanks to the coronavirus.
Door-knocking is out. So are in-person meetings and most other big gatherings, despite the massive demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd. Amid social distancing and continuing health concerns, persuasion efforts and voter registration drives have switched to phone, text, and mail. Activists across the political spectrum tested out the new methods ahead of Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary — knowing they may need the same tactics in November’s general election.
“We had a plan, and a lot of that plan got blown up,” said Vashti Bandy, one of the Tuesdays with Toomey leaders. Even their weekly protests outside Toomey’s offices are on hiatus for the first time since they began in late 2016.
“We were there in the summer, we were there in the winter,” Bandy said. “The pandemic is the one thing that kept us home.”
Her group is one of many that sprang up across Pennsylvania after Trump’s election, determined to resist his policies and ensure that he wouldn’t win the state — or the White House — a second time. The new wave of activists has trained as volunteers, built their ranks, honed their tactics and messages. But just as they reached the final months of a presidential campaign they have anticipated for years, they’ve had to adapt to a new reality.
“We were really excited to get out and knock on doors," said Bandy, of Philadelphia. “Now we’re doing postcards."
Ray Linsenmayer still remembers the aftermath of Trump’s victory, pacing through his home near Pittsburgh at 3 a.m., vowing to “treat every minute” until Election Day 2020 “like we’re going to lose by 100 votes.” He organized a volunteer network of 1,000, dubbed the Democratic Volunteer Corps, that deployed to races up and down the ballot.
But many of the volunteers on campaigns and in grassroots groups are retirees who may be wary of typical campaign work now, given the virus’ threat to older people.
“If you’re going to take a bunch of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, I don’t know how long it’s going to take for those people to feel comfortable coming out to a field office and sitting seven to a table,” Linsenmayer said.
“The answer to this is we’re all learning,” he added.
Pennsylvania Stands Up, a coalition of progressives, is aiming to reach voters who sat out the 2016 election, knowing that in a state decided by less than one percentage point, even small shifts could decide the 2020 race. The Lancaster County chapter knocked on 20,000 doors in 2019.
But their in-person canvassing stopped in mid-March. Instead, the group’s nine chapters made 560,000 contacts with voters using phone calls and texts ahead of the primary.
“All of the plans we had about how we were going to be out on the doors had to be rewritten,” said the group’s executive director, Hannah Laurison, of Philadelphia. “We had to figure out, just like every other person, how to use Zoom and how to use a Zoom meeting.”
Even though thousands, including Laurison, have taken to the streets in recent days to denounce police brutality and racial inequality, and Laurison stressed that she supports people attending those events, she and other activists say they’re still focusing their own organizations on digital and phone campaigning.
Laurison said she would take cues from public health officials. “I, at this time, would not feel comfortable organizing a mass public demonstration ... because the COVID concerns are still real and we take them seriously.”
She and Bandy drew a distinction between the organic nature of the Floyd protests and staging events themselves. Bandy said she supported the recent demonstrations but didn’t attend out of concern that she might put her immune-compromised mother at risk. She added that it would be unfair to knock on the door of someone trying to maintain social distance.
“I don’t think we should impose our risk assessment on other people by literally making them come to their door," Bandy said.
As often happens, opposition groups have driven the most visible grassroots efforts during the Trump presidency, but conservative organizations face the same challenge.
Americans for Prosperity Action had about six dozen volunteers and supporters March 5 in Wormleysburg, just outside Harrisburg, to kick off their canvassing to help reelect U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.). It also turned out to be their last door-knocking session — at least so far.
“When you’re standing on someone’s doorstep, it’s just a different mode of interaction. ... You’re not anonymous. ... That’s always the preferred vehicle,” said Ashley Klingensmith, the group’s senior adviser in Pennsylvania, echoing other activists who said in-person contact is the best way to deliver a message. “It’s a different time and a different environment, and we’ve had to pivot and transform.”
The nonpartisan Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition usually sends staffers to naturalization ceremonies in Philadelphia to register new citizens to vote. Last year they signed up 7,900 people.
Now, there are no such ceremonies to attend, said Sundrop Carter, the group’s executive director.
It’s not only the grassroots that have been hampered. Trump’s signature rallies have been on hold, taking away a key organizing tool, though the president plans to restart the rallies Saturday in Tulsa, Okla.
The groups have all adapted using technology.
NextGen, a youth-focused progressive group that usually operates on college campuses, has instead turned to “virtual raves” online, with appearances by drag queens, DJs, and singers interspersed with voter registration appeals.
Several groups now rely more on “text-banking” to reach voters.
Tuesdays with Toomey volunteers have held virtual round-table discussions with guest speakers and sought out pen pals in nursing homes. Some have hosted online postcard parties, one left mail ballot applications in her neighbors’ doors, and others are sending postcards on behalf of Turn PA Blue, which has focused on the state legislature.
During online gatherings, Tuesday with Toomey members still call out their chants from inside their homes: Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!
“It was pretty fun,” Bandy said. “We had built a community and we don’t want to lose the community we built.”
Despite the limitations, there are some new advantages. After weeks of isolation, people are more willing to answer the phones, and to talk longer, several organizers said.
“The voter contact rate has actually gone up," Laurison said. She added in a later interview, “What we saw in the primary has really shown us that we can use the phone to connect with voters in really authentic and meaningful ways.”
Said Klingensmith, of Americans for Prosperity, "I’ve talked to some folks who say, ‘It’s so nice to get a call from a live person.'” The group fired out more than 10,000 calls on Saturdays before the primary, and is continuing with texting and calls.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has drawn more than 9,000 Pennsylvanians to online volunteer training or other digital events since the RNC switched to virtual-only activities March 13, spokesperson Michael Joyce said. He said the party made 2.6 million virtual voter contacts during that time.
The widespread embrace of online conferencing has also opened opportunities.
“Geography means a lot less,” said Linsenmayer, who recalled one online meeting that drew participants from almost 30 counties. “Never, ever, ever would 29 counties have been represented in these meetings.”
Last year, he suspended his formal organization, which had remained neutral in primaries, so he could volunteer for Joe Biden. But many of the volunteers he worked with remain active. Now, Linsenmayer hopes the years of effort have given progressives a strong foundation as everyone gropes through new circumstances.
“They’re running in the same environment we are,” he said. “We’ve spent four years building and I’ll take this. I’d rather have it different, but I’ll take it.”