Six months out from the general election, the coronavirus continues to impact voters across the country regardless of party affiliation. Safety precautions forced Democratic and Republican organizers to rapidly transition operations to 100% virtual and, in some cases, in a matter of days.
Social distancing measures that have been implemented in response to the pandemic could delay a return to traditional political organizing for the foreseeable future or change them forever. As a result, the Democratic and Republican National Committees, various state parties, and political training organizations have been forced to rely on digital platforms to engage voters in more creative ways.
Party leaders and digital directors told CBS News they have had to adjust in different ways to digital organizing, including teaching volunteers how to use phone banking apps via Zoom, using the same platform to onboard and train volunteers, and hosting digital one-on-one coffee meet-ups between organizers and voters.
According to the RNC, in the weeks since they've gone fully virtual in their operation, they have held nearly 3,900 Trump Victory Leadership Initiative training sessions and more than 1,700 MAGA meet-ups. The committee also noted that they've made more than 20 million voter contacts and have added more than 300,000 new volunteers to their team since making the virtual transition.
"Modern campaigns are all done with digital and through apps," said RNC and Trump Victory spokesperson Rick Gorka, who added that being able to phone bank from home creates flexibility for volunteers. "For us, it's just that that virtual campaign has been a part of what we've done throughout this [and] since the 2016 cycle."
At the same time, the DNC digital unit has worked to help different departments move online and at the beginning of April, the committee announced in a memo that there had been nearly 7,000 individuals trained on digital organizing tools in the span of a few weeks through the committee's Digital Organizing 101 training sessions. Through partnerships with state parties in battleground states like Florida and Georgia, the committee has sent 2.8 million text messages to voters encouraging them to vote by mail. And the DNC has embedded 11 digital organizing fellows in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
"Organizing at its core is just relationship-building. I think digital organizing is like that as well. How connected does a supporter feel to us and how much of the party do they feel like is their own," said DNC Digital Organizing director Meg DiMartino. "The thing I think about often is how do we continue to deepen and build that online …what are more ways that our supporters, our volunteers can feel more ownership over this program."
Democrats only recently wrapped up a historically crowded presidential primary, with more than two dozen candidates vying for the nomination. After Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee in April, the Democratic Party immediately announced it would be using its resources to help his campaign scale up quickly. This came as the Biden campaign also had to shift all campaign efforts online. Organizing teams have remained engaged using Zoom to host action events like writing letters and creating signs for first responders. The campaign has also held community calls to check in with how volunteers and supporters are doing during the pandemic.
CBS News attended virtual training sessions with the DNC, RNC, and National Democratic Training Committee, to observe how the campaigns are engaging with voters behind closed doors. Training sessions with as many as 300 participants allowed people to tune in from home offices, living rooms, kitchens or even bedrooms. Volunteers of all ages intently stared at computer screens as hosts drilled down using PowerPoint presentations that lasted 10 to 45 minutes. One of the training sessions featured voters from at least seven different states, another had a steady stream of questions from participants that would show up as blinking notifications in the "Comments" section. After presentations, participants were sent handouts, and in some cases, had the opportunity to practice their newly-acquired skills with the trainer on the line.
"These virtual trainings are so easy. And you're actually able to do a lot more of them because you're not traveling from location to location," said Florida Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters, who gave remarks during a recent RNC virtual training. "It's the exact same thing that you would do whether you see them in person, or you could do it over the phone because it's all about getting people set up on the system that they could use in their own homes to make those calls."
Officials from both parties and training organizations insist that digital migration has been made easier because they were already in the process of putting infrastructure in place. CBS News spoke with a dozen Democratic and Republican state parties to survey how the shift to digital has impacted their operations.
"With all the technology that's available…we've done an incredible amount of voter contacts," Gruters said. He added that his team has made 4.5 million calls since going fully digital. "We're hitting all of our numbers and the great thing about what we're able to do is when people are at home because of this crisis, you essentially have a captive audience."
"One thing that's really interesting is, switching to virtual has actually allowed the team to connect more with rural voters," said Iowa Republican Party Communications Director Aaron Britt. He pointed out that rural voters helped President Trump win in 2016, saying "that's been one of the great offsets especially here in Iowa, the uptick that we've seen in being able to connect with those rural voters as we make a lot of phone calls and things like that."
Colorado Republican Party Communications director Joe Jackson noted that in his state, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work in both rural and urban areas, so they transitioned events starting at the county party level. When they did their caucuses and assembly, decisions were made at the local level within the governor's guidelines, leaving some counties to conduct drive-through caucuses while others did Zoom meetings or emails.
For Democrats, multiple state parties are trying to maintain high voter engagement. In many states where there was record voter turnout in primaries before the coronavirus pandemic, people have since been forced to shelter in place.
In late April, the North Carolina Democratic Party had record turnout during its county conventions, which were held virtually using Zoom for the first time. Normally, the conventions would have used a county-by-county approach, but because of the pandemic, the party centralized training and coordination to ensure the conventions ran smoothly. Officials and campaigns have also been using texting, phone banking, and holding virtual events and organizing communities online.
"Notwithstanding the challenge, I believe we are more organized and more focused than ever before," said NCDP Chair Wayne Goodwin. "We had no choice but to do that."
The Michigan Democratic party said it recruited more than 3,000 volunteers and made more than 60,000 direct voter contact calls in the first month of distancing. The party has continued to interview and train organizers, with a goal of having 70 in the state by the end of May. The Organizing Corps program, which trains college students, will be hosting a virtual bootcamp to train a third wave of organizers in the next few weeks for organizing in Michigan.
"We continue to grow this ground game," said MDP Chair Lavora Barnes. The 2020 organizing efforts have been underway since 2017. "It's currently virtual organizers and a lot of these tools that we're using now, we'll continue to use even if or when we're able to get back out and knock on doors and stand on folks' porches and have conversations with them."
Florida Democratic Party executive director Juan Peñalosa said they've already begun to implement contingency plans if the party has to continue digital organizing through November.
"I think now more than ever, when people vote in November, they're going to think about who helped them, who was there for them during this pandemic, through this crisis. And we've inserted that question into every aspect of our organizing program," said Peñalosa. "Voters today are worried about their health, their jobs, home schooling, their kids. They're lonely and frustrated and good campaigns meet people where they are and our campaign is focused on meeting people where they are. So all of our outreach begins with a wellness check."
In late March, the Texas Democratic Party launched a series of new programs. Those programs include an online community hub called ConnectTexas, a network of check-in calls across every county called Connect254 and a Community Captains program that has already recruited nearly 500 people. In a state without online voter registration, the party also launched a website in late April to facilitate getting registration forms and postage into the hands of new voters.
Before the pandemic crippled the country, the Texas Democratic Party told CBS News it was planning to put up to 1,000 field organizers and canvassers on the ground in the state as part of their effort to turn Texas from red to blue. At the time, more than 2 million voters participated in the state's Democratic presidential primary, and the party said its organizing operation would be the biggest in the state party's and perhaps Texas history. CBS News learned in a followup last week that the goal has not changed — it's just significantly shifted online.
"That's what organizing and campaigning are, you have to be willing to pivot, but you want to be clear, what we're doing now is aligned with what we planned to do which is building relationships, building connections," said Texas Democratic Party organizing director Olivia Stitilis.
While field operations across the country have jumped into online organizing head on, the reliance on technology has not been without adjustments. In South Carolina, the state Democratic Party has worked with counties to hold virtual conventions for the past month. And original plans to hire a significant field staff have changed for the time being.
"We're analyzing the way we're going to have our state convention, we're doing our executive committee meetings completely differently…so there's been a completely re-organization as to how you organize, but also how you go about doing the perfunctory business of running the state party," said SCDP Chairman Trav Robertson. "There's a portion of it that you anticipate doing as everything goes to a digital type of platform or campaign but I mean, the majority of this is a result of COVID-19."
Training organizations like the National Democratic Training Committee and the conservative Leadership Institute have added online courses to help down ballot candidates and people who are interested in public policy to navigate campaigns and voter engagement during the pandemic.
"Campaigns are naturally risk-averse and late adopters of technology...for a variety of reasons," said National Democratic Training Committee CEO Kelly Deitrich. "[Texting] is not normally a technology that down ballot campaigns with limited time, money and people invest in. They're out knocking on doors. Well, they don't have that option anymore. They're forced to adopt these new ways of communicating and reaching voters that wouldn't have been their first choice, but now may be their only choice."
"I wouldn't say the goals have changed, I would say the relevant topics have changed," said Ron Nehring, who has worked at the Leadership Institute for five years. "We're still teaching political technology but we're teaching in subjects that we haven't had to cover before. We've never had to do a program on 'how do you keep your campaign alive during a pandemic."