When she hears the sound of the beep in her living room in Seattle, Mari is usually the one who leans forward over the laptop and starts to talk. On the other end of the line is someone she’s never met in a place she’s never been: Texas.
“My name is Mari and I’m here with my mom and I’m a volunteer with the Texas Democrats,” she says, making sure to enunciate every word.
Mari and her mom, Julie, are calling about voting: voting early, voting by mail, voting for Democrats up and down the ballot. But first, before they talk about any of that, Mari asks the person on the other end of the line something else: “How are you doing in these difficult times?”
Mari, 11, and her mom have never been to Texas. Like a lot of people, they haven’t really left their house much since the pandemic began, when Seattle was among the first cities to begin shutting down. Their world has been mostly limited to their small family: Mari’s dad, her sister, and their brown lab.
But in between the tones of the Democratic Party’s autodialer, they’ve talked to a lot of Texans. Texans really are friendlier, Julie said. She knows it’s a stereotype, but she thinks it’s true. In their conversations, Mari and her mother have learned about Texas geography and about how much harder it is to vote in Texas than in their home state of Washington. They learned that Texas has two time zones. Once, Mari asked her mom: “Why do they always call you ‘ma’am’?”
“You hear people’s voices and the hope and the civility, and I don’t think ‘healing’ is too strong a word,” Julie said.
“You get to know people better,” Mari said. “They tell you about their life and what’s happened to them.”
The last few months before a presidential election are supposed to be filled with canvassers crisscrossing neighborhoods in swing states, their arms stuffed with campaign literature — a so-called “ground game” of voter persuasion, registration, and turnout.
But all of that came to a halt with the coronavirus pandemic. And while Republicans in many states were back out canvassing within months, sending armies out to knock on what they say are millions of doors, for most Democratic campaigns, the last eight months of organizing has looked very, very different.
It has looked like Julie and Mari, huddled together over a laptop, making phone calls to a place they’ve never been. Texas Democrats say their organizers sometimes make more than 750,000 calls a day — they called more than 2 million voters in the state last weekend, as early voting was coming to a close. And 5,000 “active texters” send as many as a million texts a day.
In October, national Democrats started smaller-scale door-knocking programs. But no one knows, exactly, what the months of gaping differences between the two parties’ strategies will mean for the election. So far, it has sown Democratic panic, given Republicans an edge in voter registration in key states, and formed the basis of GOP arguments that the polls, once again, will turn out to be wrong.
For the Democratic Party and its leaders, it’s also been a point of pride — a model of how to behave during a pandemic in contrast to a president who has defied coronavirus guidelines, endangering his own health as well as that of voters. No one will know until Tuesday, at the earliest, who is right.
But for people like Mari and Julie, isolated by COVID-19 and anxious about the election, the digital campaign has turned out to be an unexpected source of connection. Maybe even a little hope.
The digital campaign has turned out to be an unexpected source of connection. Maybe even a little hope.
On a weekday in early October, more than 150 people gathered in the rectangles of a Zoom room to make calls for the Texas Democrats. Many kept their cameras on as they dialed, talking emphatically into laptops and headphones. In their silent panels, a man spoke from his kitchen table; a woman sat at her desk in San Francisco, a stack of books behind her; two women made calls together in a kitchen. By the end, they had made 20,000 calls to Texas voters who had requested mail-in ballots.
Different nights bring different batches of Texans. Calling people to convince them to vote at all is hard; you get frequent hang-ups, plenty of Trump supporters. Calling registered Democrats can be a much more positive experience.
The weekday call was a “Dance and Dial,” not just a phone-bank session; after the two-hour session was over, everyone came back together in the Zoom room, and Lionel Richie began to play through people’s speakers. Some dialers bobbed their heads; others swayed. Some just squinted into their webcams, confused. A woman danced in a leopard-print hat, and another woman held a tambourine, rattling it silently in and out of the camera’s view. A man held up a hand-lettered sign that read: “Calling from New Jersey.”
“I am sorely missing getting my groove on in these COVID-y times,” someone wrote into the chat window.
Democrats from around the country virtually descending on Texas is another unique part of this year’s presidential campaign. Texas isn’t supposed to merit this many phone calls. But after decades of clear Republican wins, polls now show the race for the state’s 38 Electoral College votes is a toss-up.
Because Texas isn’t likely to be the state that tips the election to Democrats, Biden’s campaign has paid it less attention than to places like Pennsylvania and Florida. But Beto O’Rourke, who lost a Senate race there to Ted Cruz by just three points in 2018, has been beating a drum begging his party to invest time and resources in his state.
O’Rourke has long been a champion of the ground game: In the 2018 Senate race, his team knocked on almost 3 million doors across Texas. After his failed presidential run, O’Rourke founded a nonprofit, Powered by People, that was envisioned as an extension of his door-knocking powerhouse.
But in the pandemic, it has gone mostly virtual, making hundreds of thousands of calls a week in Texas. Sometimes, on its Zoom calls, Oprah is there too, cold-calling voters alongside hundreds of others.
In Leander, Texas, O’Rourke’s vision has helped draw in Brian Nguyen and his boyfriend to spend countless nights phone-banking in different rooms — some 3,000 or 4,000 calls in all, by Nguyen’s roughest count. For months now, he has made calls almost every night while his boyfriend acts as tech support for the volunteers. Mostly, Nguyen calls people in Texas, but once it gets too late there, he sometimes switches to phone-banking in Alaska.
“It’s a cool thing I’ve found. It’s three hours off, so if it’s 10:30 our time, it’s 7:30 there. So I’ve been doing some of those to really optimize my time."
A software engineer, Nguyen moved from California to Leander, a city just north of Austin, just before the pandemic began, and he’s seen almost no one since. He and his boyfriend haven’t even been outside much; their regular hikes had to stop in the summer thanks to the muggy Texas heat.
"I think of these calls as therapy."
But in March, Nguyen started making phone calls for MJ Hegar, the Democratic Senate candidate in Texas running against Republican John Cornyn. He hasn’t stopped since. He made hundreds of calls through Powered by People.
“I think of these calls as therapy,” he said. “I have some agency back. I’m talking to real people and having real conversations with them about what’s important to them.”
When the New York Times broke the news that President Donald Trump paid just $750 in income taxes in 2017, Nguyen decided to do 750 more calls. After he reached that goal, he decided to do a thousand.
Early in the year, he went to a virtual seminar about how to convince undecided voters. He avoids moral judgments or telling them what to do. Instead, he said, he tries to “put them into problem-solver mode.”
“It actually has a lot of parallels to addiction counseling,” he said. “People know they shouldn’t be smoking, but their addiction prevents them from choosing an option like a nicotine patch. So I try to lay out the options they do have.”
As the autodialer beeps him from house to house, Nguyen writes down on a notepad snatches of conversations he finds inspiring or even just funny, like a beekeeper who he joked with about starting a movement called “Bees for Biden.”
“There’s been this silver lining to us having to do everything virtual, which is that I wouldn’t be as involved as I am now,” Nguyen said. “I’d have to drive to whatever phone bank it is or to knock doors. It would take a lot of time to do this. It’s not as easy as it is jumping onto a Zoom call.”
The technology has not been easy for everyone, especially the retirees who make up a huge chunk of Democratic volunteers. Organizers who might have spent their time corralling armies of door knockers have instead become tech support, helping people figure out how to download Slack or restart a frozen autodialer.
“I’m sorry. I am old and not accustomed to texting a lot,” said a woman who is sitting in front of a wall of books a few minutes later. “Now, archiving someone — that sets them aside, but it doesn’t cut them off altogether?”
“I hope you don’t mind my sad story. But technology hates me,” begins a closeup of a woman’s forehead.
She couldn’t figure out how to get the texting system to work, she said. “Last time, I went through this whole thing, and it said, ’No assignments.’ I don’t want that to happen to me again. I have this chunk of time. I’m doing it. I want to do everything I can.”
Labor unions, a big source of Democratic organizing muscle, were frustrated by the months where they could not campaign in person, sending their members out door knocking in droves in states like Nevada and Pennsylvania.
For some union members, especially older ones, the technology of Zoom calls, Slack, texting, and autodialing has been a barrier, said Carolina Gonzalez, a spokesperson for 32BJ, which organizes building service workers like door attendants and cleaners in 12 states.
“It’s been a tough transition to learn how to do these things,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t understand this texting thing; I want to do the thing that we’ve done before.’” But others have latched on immediately; one member in his sixties sent 10,000 texts in a week and a half.
In Seattle, Mari has been her mother’s tech support, showing her how to summon a staffer into a breakout room to ask questions. And she keeps her mother going relentlessly. With the autodialer, there are no breaks while phones ring, no waiting to see if someone answers. The technology picks up automatically when someone says “Hello?” Then the tone of the beep: It’s time to talk.
After an hour and a half of dialing, Julie said, “I might just put it on ‘not ready’ and take a little break—”
“No,” Mari interrupted forcefully. She leaned over her mother, making sure she wouldn’t press the button to stop the calls. Beep.
“Hi, my name is Mari…”
In all their hours of calls, no one has answered Mari’s question by saying they’re doing well. A lot of people are just “hanging in there.” Once, a mom talked about her struggles to virtually school her child, who has a disability. Mari jumped in to talk about how her mom was helping her with virtual school.
A few weeks ago, the autodialer connected Mari and Julie to a woman who had requested a mail-in ballot. The woman was going to hang up on them, she told them, “but then I heard this little baby’s voice.”
Mari asked how the woman was doing, the way she always does, and they started talking. The woman talked about how she was active in her church, and told them about a relative who’d just gotten out of surgery. She started to describe what Austin looked like, and the San Antonio River Walk.
“If you’re ever in Texas,” the woman told them, “let me know.” They talked long past the point when the two-hour phone-banking shift was supposed to end.
And they made sure she had mailed in her ballot.