Even the cars were socially distanced in a Woodbury parking lot on Tuesday night as Democrats filed into every other parking spot for a pandemic-era drive-in debate watch party. Instead of cheers, they laid on their horns when Joe Biden turned to President Donald Trump and asked: “Will you shut up, man?”
“As a Minnesotan, honking makes me really nervous, but I’m into it,” DFL Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said to scores of windshields, pivoting to a plea for volunteers. “We’re not knocking on a lot of doors, but you have to call people. You have to have conversations with your neighbors about what’s at stake.”
Two days later, Eric Trump asked a crowd gathered in person outside a Becker, Minn., trucking facility how they’d rate his dad’s performance in the debate. Hundreds wearing MAGA swag — but few face masks — raised their hands and cheered. “We lost this state by 1% in 2016, I’m very mad at all of you,” Trump’s son told the crowd. “But I’m telling you, we’re going to win it this time.”
With just four weeks until the Nov. 3 election, two dramatically different mobilization efforts are ramping up in Minnesota, a state that’s emerged as a Midwestern battleground in the 2020 race for the White House.
Republicans are vowing to turn Minnesota red for the first time since Richard Nixon won the state in 1972. Trump was in Duluth on Wednesday for a rally, his third visit to the state in two months and seventh since coming within 44,000 votes of winning Minnesota four years ago.
But mobilization is precarious during a global pandemic. That was underscored Friday by Trump’s own COVID-19 diagnosis, which has sidelined him and several Minnesota Republicans who greeted him during his visit.
When COVID-19 hit, Democrats switched almost entirely to virtual roundtables, phone banking and texting, a strategy frequently mocked by conservatives as ineffective.
But Biden’s team has said it’s not taking Minnesota for granted, dispatching resources and surrogates to a state where Hillary Clinton never set foot after winning the Democratic nomination four years ago. Biden visited Duluth to kick off early voting on Sept. 18. His wife, Jill, made her second in-person visit to Minnesota on Saturday, touring Black-owned businesses in St. Paul, meeting with volunteers providing food for families during the pandemic and kicking off an event to mobilize women voters. In swing states, Biden’s campaign said last week it will begin in-person door knocking but will respect social distancing.
Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris hasn’t visited Minnesota in person, but she’s appeared twice virtually, including at a DFL fundraiser on Thursday. Through a computer screen, she called for Democrats to mobilize, saying the battle for the presidency “runs straight through Minnesota.”
Both campaigns’ mobilization efforts in Minnesota have shifted to trying to lock in as many votes as possible before the Nov. 3 election as voters turn to absentee balloting in record numbers as a safer alternative to in-person voting. The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office said Friday that more than 1.4 million absentee ballots have been requested and more than 336,000 ballots have already been accepted, a 600% increase from the same period four years ago.
Trump has repeatedly questioned the security of mail-in balloting, despite little evidence to back up claims of widespread voting fraud. But his team on the ground in Minnesota is still mobilizing people to vote early. Republican National Committee Co-chair Tommy Hicks was in Eagan and Wayzata last week asking party volunteers making calls and knocking on doors to encourage others to cast their ballots as soon as possible “so there’s a clear winner on Nov. 3.”
Preya Samsundar, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign effort in Minnesota, said there’s a distinction between concerns about widespread mail-in balloting and giving voters the information they need to request their own absentee ballot or vote early. And she was skeptical about last-minute efforts from the Biden campaign to weave in more in-person campaigning in the final month of the campaign. She said the Trump campaign already has made nearly 4 million voter contacts in Minnesota in the 2020 cycle.
“We’ve been maintaining the conversations and maintaining these relationships in communities all across the state,” she said. “I wish them the best of luck. I don’t envision how they are going to do it.”
In a strategy memo released last week, Biden’s campaign said it’s focusing many of its resources in the final weeks on ensuring that Minnesotans “can make their voices heard at the ballot box — whether that is via mail, in person early, or in person on Election Day.”
That strategy includes combining in-person campaigning while following social distancing guidelines and trying to close gaps in their phone, text and digital organizing.
“Our number of quality phone conversations are higher than they have ever been, and our staff and volunteers are fired up and focused on mobilizing voters all across the state,” Ryan Doyle, state director of Biden’s Minnesota campaign, said in a statement. “In the final 30 days until the election, we’re now expanding our voter contact strategy in a targeted way that prioritizes the safety of our staff, volunteers, and Minnesotans, while helping voters understand the easy and accessible ways they can cast their ballot and make their voices heard.”
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said there’s been no drop-off in his party’s ability to reach voters. Despite the Trump campaign’s busy travel schedule to greater Minnesota congressional districts, he said DFL data and other public polling show he’s not hitting the same margins in those districts as he did in 2016. “He’s still winning [those districts], but if you’re only winning it by four points right now, but you won it by 16 points in 2016, that’s a real problem,” he said.
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Annette Meeks, a Republican activist who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Minnesota, counters that the Trump campaign’s extensive appearances and mobilizing in rural parts of the state is “unlike anything” she’s seen in the state before — and it’s helped the GOP amass new data identifying voters “we didn’t know believed what we believe.”
There are 250,000 noncollege-educated white men who didn’t vote in 2016 or 2018, she added. “If you’re Donald Trump and you lost by 45,000-some votes, that’s your universe,” Meeks said. “For Republicans, it’s like Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday all rolled into one.”
But with four weeks to go, University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis will, at a minimum, affect what kind of in-person campaign events are possible and how they are viewed by the public in the final stretch of the campaign. And it puts COVID-19 — not a winning issue for Trump — back at the top of voters’ minds as they are casting their ballots.
“COVID was already a central issue in the campaign, but I think this just brings it even more to the forefront,” Pearson said. “There will be constant attention to it now.”