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In-person voting in Clark County on June 9, 2020. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Nevada Democrats have, for years, been fine-tuning their political machine.

Two years ago was, perhaps, their best proof of concept. Democrats spirited away a key U.S. Senate seat, took control of the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades and secured a veto-proof majority in one chamber of the Legislature while retaining a majority in the other. It was a blow to Republicans, who had devoted significant resources to building an operation they hoped would rival Democrats’.

The playbook for Democrats’ recent electoral successes has been relatively simple: Register as many voters as possible, recruit and train volunteers, and use those volunteers to make phone calls and knock doors to get those voters to turn out to the polls.

The thinking heading into 2020 was this: If Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist senator from Vermont, was the nominee, Nevada, which has tended to favor moderate Democrats in recent statewide elections over progressive ones, would certainly be in play. If it was Joe Biden, the middle-of-the-road former vice president, the state would be much less so.

But in the time of coronavirus, a significant chunk of the Democratic playbook has been torn out and tossed out the window, with campaigns, the party and outside organizations nixing door-knocking from their get-out-the-vote plans in favor of phone banking, text message campaigns and literature drops. They’re also working double time, not only to persuade voters who to vote for but how, exactly, to vote in the middle of the pandemic.

Two months out from Election Day, Democrats are facing a Nevada that feels much more in play than many anticipated it to be, though it’s hard to tell because there has been no public polling on the race since late April. That survey, taken by Democratic pollster John Anzalone, found Biden up by only 4 percentage points in the Silver State.

Some Democrats point to the pandemic, specifically, the switch to a virtual campaign and the challenges associated with educating voters on how to participate by mail. Others say that contests always feel tighter as they draw nearer.

"Every experiment done on talking to voters and persuading voters points to old fashioned door knocking and conversations in person as the number one way to persuade and mobilize voters,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “It absolutely has an effect and will have an effect and is an important component of what we do on the ground. But, frankly, so is keeping people safe and protecting people’s lives.”

Democrats’ absence from the field has been filled by Republicans, who halted in-person campaigning at the beginning of the pandemic but resumed door-knocking and in-person events in mid-June. And they’re champing at the bit to get President Donald Trump re-elected in a state he lost by 2.4 percentage points four years ago, and they are eager to prove the strength of their political operation, which they activated early this cycle.

Scott Scheid, a Republican consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said the Trump Victory team is already bigger at this point than Romney’s was by Election Day in 2012. Scheid said that Romney’s campaign totaled 40 staffers by November, where the Trump Victory campaign already has 60.

“We’re sitting here in mid- to late August, and we’ve passed what Romney’s campaign was able to accomplish in ‘12,” Scheid said. “Part of that is the early start and investment that the Trump Victory team made shortly after President Trump’s election, getting staffed here early, personally developing relationships with these volunteers and getting engaged and active early on.”

There is, however, one Democratic-aligned group out in the field with Republicans: the Culinary Union, the politically powerful labor organization that represents 60,000 hotel workers on the Las Vegas Strip and across the state.

The union’s workers have been hard hit by the virus. Forty members of the Culinary Union and their immediate family have died from COVID-19 and 367 have been hospitalized with the virus, while thousands more have suffered financially after casinos shuttered in March and have been slow to fully reopen. Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

But the Culinary Union, which failed earlier this year to defeat Sanders in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus but otherwise has a reputation for turning tides in close elections, isn’t sitting idly by. The union deployed more than 200 of its members, most of them workers who have yet to return to their jobs, into the field on August 1, an earlier and larger political operation than it has activated in previous cycles.

“This is a global pandemic. Everyone around the world has been deeply impacted, but Culinary Union members are resilient,” union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said in a text message. “Nothing is promised and that’s why we are committed to defeat Trump on Election Day in Nevada.”

The outcome of the election right now is anyone’s guess. Republicans and Democrats alike are preparing for an intense race at the top of the ticket, with implications for down-ballot races, from legislative seats to school board contests.

If there is only one thing Republicans and Democrats in Nevada agree on, it’s likely this: Two blue waves do not a blue state make.

The Republican operation

Trump, standing on the South Lawn of the White House, accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday, capping off four days of party festivities centered in and around Washington, D.C. instead of Charlotte, where the entirety of the Republican National Convention was originally slated to be held before the coronavirus pandemic. In Nevada, Trump’s campaign spent those four days rallying the troops by hosting volunteer trainings, MAGA meetups and a thank-you barbecue for law enforcement officers, 

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, speaking to volunteers in Reno on Wednesday, issued a call to action: Get Trump elected, and he’ll carry Republicans down the ticket to victory with him. This year, the biggest focuses down ballot for Republicans are two competitive congressional seats and a handful of key legislative races.

“If Trump wins Nevada, they will all win. So long as we keep our focus on Trump getting elected, I do believe it will have a sweeping effect with some of the other races that are across the state,” Heller said. “So keep the focus ‘Trump Trump Trump’ all the time, and I think we will be successful.”

And much of the focus over the last year has been, as it necessarily is in a presidential cycle, on Trump. While Democrats were still sparring over who their nominee would be, the Trump Victory campaign was training volunteers and otherwise making preparations for its general election campaign. 

In total, the campaign reports that it has made 2 million attempted voter contacts in Nevada this cycle, a statistic campaign officials say only includes doors knocked and phone calls made and not numbers of those contacted through their texting program or who have downloaded their official campaign app.

“We’re excited where our capacity sits and where our voter contacts are at this point,” said Jeremy Hughes, Pacific regional political director for the Trump Victory campaign. “Knowing where we sit and where we’re at historically, I think we will have the best ground game in Nevada history on Election Day.”

In March, two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and four days before non-essential businesses in Nevada were ordered to shut their doors, the Trump Victory team transitioned to an entirely virtual campaign in the span of 24 hours. Then, as businesses started opening their doors again across the state, so, too, did campaign, slowly returning to door knocking in mid-June.

“It makes a massive difference,” said Keith Schipper, Trump Victory campaign spokesman, of the campaign’s door-knocking program. “We’re doing it safely. Our volunteers are adhering to all the guidelines. But it is more of a personal impact when you’re able to have a conversation face to face about what’s at stake in Nevada.”

It took Trump until late July to embrace masks, and there was little-to-no mask wearing or social distancing at Trump’s White House speech Thursday night. However, Schipper said the campaign requires staffers to wear masks and that masks are required inside campaign offices. He added that volunteers are told that the campaign requires masks, though he noted that they can’t enforce whether volunteers actually follow those rules while out door-knocking.

Republicans are hoping that their decision to return to the field, as well as host in-person events, will give them an edge over Democrats.

“It’s hard to try to manufacture that excitement over the computer,” Schipper said.

One area where the Republicans have, notably, gained ground is with their voter registration numbers. Republicans out-registered Democrats during the month of July statewide by about 862 voters, and, in Democratic-leaning Clark County, Republicans have registered 158 more voters this month so far than Democrats, as of Saturday afternoon.

Still, Democrats had a sizable 5.7 percentage point voter registration lead over Republicans statewide as of the beginning of August, greater than the 5.4 and 4.5 percentage point advantages they held over Republicans at the same point in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Their voter registration advantage is, however, smaller than the 6.1 percentage point advantage they had before the general election in 2016 but bigger than the 4.8 percentage point advantage they had in 2018.

Even Democrats acknowledge that their voter registration efforts have been stymied this year by the pandemic, with in-person operations for the most part halted and, particularly, in light of a three-month closure of DMV offices across the state, which diminished the impact of a new automatic voter registration law that kicked in on Jan. 1. In the first three months of the year, Democrats gained more than 20,000 new voters statewide, while Republicans gained 4,500; since then, Democrats have gained about 7,000, while Republicans gained 8,500.

Hughes said that while some people like to say that "the registration numbers are looking good for Republicans because the Democrat machine isn’t working,” Democrats are still registering voters — Republicans are just registering more.

Republicans are also viewing the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s decision to quickly push through expanded mail-in voting during a special session this summer as a sign that Democrats are worried. Generally, efforts to expand mail-in voting are seen as benefiting Democrats more than Republicans.

“To do it at the last minute was, they clearly are seeing something in the numbers to make them think their numbers aren’t going to turn out,” Hughes said. “We don’t talk about how it will affect our GOTV strategy, but I think the last-minute panic from the governor shows that they’re worried about the state.”

The Democratic operation

While the Republicans try to run a campaign that looks more like the typical Democratic playbook, Democrats are re-writing their own. Their watch parties for the Democratic National Convention earlier this month were virtual. Their phone banks are virtual. Even their weekly appreciation events and supporter get-togethers are virtual.

"Obviously, organizing in a pandemic has never been done before,” organizing director Susana Cervantes said. “We are literally writing the book on this.”

The good news, the Biden campaign says, is that so much of their campaign was virtual already. During the caucus, the hot topic was “relational organizing” — that is, having supporters download an app and then use that app to encourage their friends and family members to turn out to vote. Democrats also organized virtually in other ways, such as in rural Nevada where Democrats hosted major presidential candidates for tele-town halls.

“They have really taken the lead in a lot of ways in terms of teaching the rest of us how to do this well in a general election,” said Shelby Wiltz, coordinated campaign director and, previously, the state party’s caucus director. “We’ve actually learned a lot from our rural counties about organizing virtually."

Wiltz said the Biden campaign has “not missed a beat” and that the all-virtual strategy has not stopped them from connecting to voters, whether through virtual phone banks or encouraging people to download their official app to send text messages to their networks. The campaign has even found that the virtual campaign makes it easier to recruit volunteers who wouldn’t have shown up to an office but are more than happy to help from their couch.

Additionally, the campaign has been able to lean on the infrastructure of the Nevada State Democratic Party, which operates year-round and has its own volunteer base instead of having to stand up an operation every election cycle, as other state parties across the country do.

But an all-virtual campaign isn’t without its drawbacks. For instance, on Wednesday evening, organizer Yesenia Moya was tasked with leading a virtual, bilingual phone bank of about a dozen people over Zoom.

“For those folks that already know how to make calls, please feel free, the links are in the chat,” Moya said. “If you've never made calls, please hold off for just a second.”

Moya walked the group through the process of phone banking and answered their questions, just as she might have had the event been in person. But there were other things out of her control, such as people joining and leaving the phone bank at different times and difficulties trying to get participants to identify themselves over Zoom so that she could walk them through the set-up process. 

They’re the kind of challenges common to hosting any kind of meeting over Zoom — now familiar to many — but also the kind of difficulties that don’t exist when attending an event in person.

The Biden campaign declined to provide the number of staff it has hired, only saying the number is in the dozens, or the number of voter contacts they have made. The campaign does, however, say that it has hundreds of volunteers who are talking to thousands of voters on a weekly basis.

Wiltz said that the campaign has actually seen voter engagement increase because of the switch to a virtual campaign, possibly because more people are receptive to that kind of outreach in the current milieu of the pandemic.

"I don’t think us valuing the health and safety of our volunteers means that we are at a disadvantage here,” Wiltz said. “I believe we’re strong, we’re motivated, we are working hard, our volunteers are excited and energized and we have a ton of engagement we’re seeing and a lot of conversations we’re having."

Biden’s Nevada team also isn’t taking the blue waves of 2016 and 2018 for granted.

"People in Nevada know this, and I think the campaign knows this well nationally, that Nevada is a battleground state. We’ve seen it cycle after cycle. We know we have swing districts, we have swing counties, we have a lot of nonpartisan voters, we have a lot of undecided voters,” Wiltz said. “I think that our campaign knows very well just how competitive Nevada is.”

Four years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Nevada, but by a narrow 2.4 percentage-point margin. And Trump actually won the suburban part of Clark County, as represented by Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, by a percentage point.

It was a far closer race than the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in Nevada, in which Barack Obama defeated John McCain, the late senator from Arizona, by 12.5 percentage points and Romney, now the senator from Utah, by 6.7 percentage points.

And the margins Democrats won by in 2018 were significant but not overwhelming. Jacky Rosen, a first-term Democratic congresswoman, unseated Heller from the U.S. Senate by a 5-percentage point margin, while Gov. Steve Sisolak’s victory over then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt was narrower, a 4.1 percentage point victory.

To that end, the Biden campaign stresses that they are working hard for every vote. Nevada is, for instance, one of eight battleground states — along with Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where the campaign is focusing its television ads.

“We do not take voters for granted. We work hard for every vote, and our program reflects that," Cervantes said. “We look for opportunities to engage people, to bring new people to this process, to empower people with the information they need to vote, and, especially in terms of making voting more accessible, that’s the priority."

Getting out the vote

For Democrats, specifically, convincing people to vote for Biden is only half the battle. The other half is educating them on how to vote, whether they drop their ballot in the mail, return their ballot in a drop box or choose to vote in-person either early or on Election Day. 

During the June primary, about 484,000 people voted by mail, including 212,000 Democrats and 195,000 Republicans; Republicans dwarfed Democrats in terms of in-person turnout, with about 2,800 Republicans and 1,000 Democrats voting in person.

No one knows exactly just how comfortable voters will be going to a polling place come November. It’s also hard to know how comfortable they will feel voting by mail, with the U.S. Postal Service warning states that their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots, though the secretary of state’s office in Nevada says it has “no concerns” about the Postal Service’s ability to support the election in the Silver State.

All the same, Democrats are honing in on voter education and voter protection efforts more than usual this cycle. Nevada Democrats on Friday announced a new voter education website aimed at answering questions about how to register to vote, vote by mail or vote in person. Wiltz also said they’ll be opening their voter protection hotline “earlier than ever” this cycle.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats also have a vast array of Democratic-aligned groups in Nevada to bolster this effort. On Friday, Win Justice Nevada, a super PAC formed as a collaboration between five progressive groups, announced a seven-figure program focused on turning out 250,000 voters, more than 80 percent of them voters of color.

SEIU Local 1107, one of the progressive groups behind Win Justice Nevada, is focusing its efforts on peer-to-peer texting to educate people about the vote-by-mail process. The union also plans to run an independent expenditure campaign specifically targeting 50,000 voters in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community.

Though SEIU has no plans to do any door-to-door campaigning at this point, union members plan to participate in literature drops, meaning that people will leave campaign flyers at people’s doors but won’t knock on them to have a face-to-face conversation.

“We’re talking to a maybe smaller group of voters but we’re able to focus on that group of voters in a different way instead of again going wide. But there’s a deeper level of engagement where we can have conversations virtually or by text,” said Brian Shepherd, deputy executive director for SEIU Local 1107. “It’s a more focused approach.”

PLAN Action, another organization in the coalition, is also focusing on peer-to-peer texting and phone calls focusing on a group of 77,000 people including formerly incarcerated people, tribal communities and Latino voters. Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN, said that the only in-person events being planned right now are centered around building “excitement” around a public ballot drop off location.

“I think because people are home, they’re responding to text messages, they’re answering the phone and wanting to have conversations,” Martin said. “I don’t know how many people would be willing to open their door if they don’t know who’s on the other side.”

At the same time, other organizations are focusing on outreach to specific demographic groups, particularly to non-English speakers, to ensure that they are both registered and informed about how to vote by mail. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, has launched a voter registration phone line and will be kicking off a four-week, in-person voter registration drive outside of supermarkets and libraries next week, in addition to its digital campaign.

“There is definitely a gap with the older Latinos or Latinos that don’t have access to the internet. They’re not as tech savvy,” said Cecia Alvarado, Mi Familia Vota’s state director. “We have to take a step back and really walk people through this process and we’re finding those ways to educate them.”

Duy Nguyen, executive director of One APIA Nevada, is working to provide the same kind of information to Nevada’s growing AAPI community, which makes up about 9.5 percent of the state’s population. He said one of the organization’s big pushes will be to hand-distribute literature to doors but without the face-to-face contact.

“I think with the pandemic being the background of everything, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and when you look at misinformation, you have to look at it from a language barrier and an educational barrier lens,” Nguyen said. “There is just so much of a gap in understanding of what is fact and what is not.”

But for many of these organizations, the kind of door-to-door engagement they wouldn’t have thought twice about in previous cycles is now a far-off proposition. Leo Murrieta, Nevada director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant and workers’ rights organization, specifically cited the cost of equipping volunteers with masks and face shields in their decision to stay virtual.

Murrieta also noted that Make the Road’s volunteer base is largely people of color and essential workers, two groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“Small organizations like ours, we have to find ways to make a penny stretch really far,” Murrieta said. “We’re grassrooting it up, doing the best that we can.”

For now, the Culinary Union continues to be the only Democratic-aligned group operating in the field. Khan, the union’s spokeswoman, said that canvassers are equipped with face masks and that conversations at the door only happen from six feet away and only if the voter is also wearing a mask; canvassers are also required to use gloves if they collect anything.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Culinary Union has worked with top health experts to protect workers,” Khan said. “Based on our experience, we have developed a set of rules to ensure the field team can talk to voters safely.”

The next two months

With a little more than two months to go until Election Day, Republicans are feeling optimistic about their chances in a state where Democrats have proved a formidable foe over the last couple of elections.

“I would just say that I am very thankful that we’ve been on the ground so long, being able to train people, and we are far ahead of the game and where we wanted to be and our ability to contact voters,” Hughes said. “I am going to bet the other side wishes they were far ahead of where they currently are.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are optimistic about the number of different ways that voters have to participate in the election this year. However, they remain worried that doubt about the election process — including the Postal Service’s ability to deliver mail-in ballots on time — could depress turnout and that a narrow race could throw the results of the election into question.

"I think that it will be close,” Jones said. “I think that we need to make sure that people are educated on how to vote and that all the signatures are verified and that all the ballots are signed, and I think we need to win by more than a couple points or we also run the risk of Trump making vote by mail the hanging chad of 2020."

For Nevadans used to the spectacle of political candidates parading into town, the run-up to November this year will also likely be different: Both campaigns demurred when asked whether their candidates would return to Nevada before November or host Nevada-specific events.

But, in an era where campaigns have been forced to get creative, it’s just one more hurdle to overcome: Reminding Nevadans that they do, still, matter.

Update 8/30/20 at 8:05 a.m. to clarify that Jeremy Hughes, Pacific regional director for the Trump Victory campaign, said that while some people say the Democratic machine isn't working, he believes it still is, Republicans are just registering more voters.

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