Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Biden campaign's new ground game

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In this age when people stream their television and don't answer their phones, reaching voters is harder than ever. So President Biden's reelection campaign is trying out a new tool to get around this challenge. NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Kimberlee Foster is a 63-year-old retired police officer from Milwaukee. She's a dedicated Democratic campaign volunteer, but she doesn't exactly fit the profile of someone on the cutting edge of campaign technology.

KIMBERLEE FOSTER: Now, I'm 10 years retired, so I'm not on the computer every day doing computer work, and I really don't care about the phone or being super-techie.

KEITH: But she does care passionately about defeating Donald Trump.

FOSTER: We don't want to wake up and see what happened in 2016.

KEITH: So through the winter, week after week, Foster went to training sessions to learn how to use an app called Reach. She was part of a Biden campaign pilot project, along with the Wisconsin Democratic Party, to test whether this tool could help them connect with voters in new ways. In particular, they were trying to reach Black voters in north Milwaukee, where, traditionally, there haven't been many volunteers. Another target - women in Republican-heavy suburban counties around Milwaukee. That's where Sarah Harrison was introduced to the app. She went to a house party with other super-involved Democrats in Waukesha County, where they all installed the app and gave it access to their address books.

SARAH HARRISON: There were some folks that were a little hesitant.

KEITH: The app matches up phone contacts with a Democratic Party voter database. It supplies a regular stream of pro-Biden content that volunteers can text directly to their friends, which Harrison says initially led to comical results.

HARRISON: Some of the folks in the room had each other in their phones, so we're sending messages across the room to each other. It was fun. I mean, we have a good time when we get together to try to do good.

KEITH: And that's a risk with this kind of tool, says Elliott Echols, the former political director at the Republican National Committee.

ELLIOTT ECHOLS: It feels like they're trying to use this to catch up and try to get in touch with people. But they're now just going to have - their friends who think their other friends are liberal are going to be sending them messages. And, like, it kind of just turns into an echo chamber.

KEITH: As he sees it, the Biden campaign is lagging behind Trump when it comes to the enthusiasm of base voters. The difficult reality campaigns face is it's really easy to tune out politics these days. And that, says Biden campaign strategist Rob Flaherty, is why tools like this app have such potential.

ROB FLAHERTY: The voters we need to talk to live in extremely polarized, personalized, fractured media environments. You know, the people that they trust the most are their friends and family. If you look at kind of what a campaign needs to do in that environment, it is figure out how to talk to people through their friends and family.

KEITH: Flaherty says it will be a key pillar of the campaign, along with other tried-and-true methods like door knocking and phone banking. Foster started out using the app to connect with her contacts, but she didn't stop there. She's gone to a bowling alley, looking for young voters. And this past weekend she showed up at a pop-up soul food restaurant.

FOSTER: When they park - it was really chilly this weekend, and we had a little bit of snow flurries. Before they can get out of their car, go up. Ask them can you speak with them.

KEITH: Foster talked to them about voting in next month's primary and plugged their info into the app. All that information about how and when they're planning to vote gets fed back into a national database that the party will use later to turn out supporters. Ben Wikler is chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

BEN WIKLER: More than half of the voters that volunteers are contacting through Reach are people that are not already on our voter list, which is, like, exactly what we need 'cause the way that we win is through addition rather than subtraction.

KEITH: But it takes training and time, and some volunteers won't turn over their contacts. The Biden campaign says it's promising but not a silver bullet. So if you live in a swing state like Wisconsin, you'll see plenty of TV ads and people knocking on doors. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PUTH SONG, "LEFT AND RIGHT (FEATURING JUNGKOOK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.