Thousands of Wisconsin volunteers for Trump, Sanders and Biden campaigns use virtual methods to reach voters during coronavirus pandemic

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Normally, the closing weeks of an election campaign are a frenetic chase of rallies, speeches, door-knocking, literature drops and old-fashioned back-slapping and glad-handing.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything ahead of Tuesday’s spring election in Wisconsin.

Almost overnight, campaigns switched to virtual organizing as stay-at-home volunteers called, texted and tweeted to reach voters across the state.

Their aim: make sure ballots are cast for their favored candidates.

The virtual effort has crossed all parties and all the big political races but is especially focused on the state Supreme Court contest between Justice Daniel Kelly and Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky.

President Donald Trump doesn’t face a primary challenge. But Republicans are pushing hard to get out the vote for the president and Kelly.

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Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders may be off the campaign trail and staying at their respective homes, but they’re also competing in the Democratic presidential primary. And Democrats are making a significant effort on behalf of Karofsky.

And everyone is gathering information as they go.

“We see this as unlike any election anyone living has ever seen, but potentially a dress rehearsal of what elections could be like for a while,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler. “As well as winning and keeping people safe, our third goal is to learn as much as we possibly can.”

Republicans are definitely in the same battle and virtual space.

“On March 13, when our whole world changed and we couldn’t go door to door anymore …  the campaign changed into a completely virtual operation. And we did it in just 24 hours,” Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said Friday.

McDaniel was speaking to volunteers via Zoom, which has emerged as a go-to tool in video conferencing.

She said the Trump Victory campaign made nearly 1.4 million voter contacts nationally March 21, “which is just unheard of.”

“This is the first time we’ve had 100% of calls come from inside people’s homes,” she said.

“In Wisconsin, our first virtual national day of action in Wisconsin, your team made over 240,000 phone calls in support of President Trump and Justice Kelly,” she said.

McDaniel told the volunteers, “I know it’s tough, I know circumstances are different” and said she urged them to take care of their families.

“I can’t say enough from the bottom of my heart how much I appreciate the time and energy you’re giving right now because this campaign is still ongoing,” she said.

Besides making calls, the Trump campaign is also virtually training volunteers, teaching them what they need to know about making calls and using social media to get out the GOP message.

Patty Nuttall, who lives outside La Crosse, normally does her volunteer work in a GOP office in Onalaska.

But for the last few weeks she has been making calls from home. She made the 10 millionth phone call for the Trump re-election campaign during this cycle.

“I do realize face to face is a great way to interact with prospective voters,” she said. “I didn’t know how the volunteers would react. Instead of their energy being diminished, I’m seeing this tremendously energized group of people. We’re going to make the best of this situation. When they talk on the phone with voters, their passion comes through.”

Democrats are also organizing. Wikler said thousands of volunteers are reaching out to voters across the state.

“People are grateful for the outreach,” Wikler said. “People want desperately to vote and want to know how they can do it safely.”

He added: “People are stuck at home, they have a lot of nervous energy. They want to make calls, they want to get calls.”

The two Democratic presidential campaigns are working to reach their voters.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana), co-chair of the Biden campaign, held a call with Wisconsin faith leaders.

Julia Krieger, a Biden campaign spokeswoman, said: “Amid the current pandemic, we’ve aggressively adapted, expanded, and strengthened our efforts on digital and remote platforms to ensure that we can reach Wisconsinites — no matter where they live and regardless of their age or economic status. With health and safety of utmost concern, we will continue to pursue direct engagement of voters by phone, online and via mail to make sure every ballot is cast as early and as safely as possible in this upcoming primary and for Election Day this November.”

On Friday night, Biden held a virtual fundraiser on a video conference call. And Sunday night, he was due to hold a virtual town hall on the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s amazing, you know, what moms and dads are always able to do, especially in your families, is to give people hope,” Biden said in a clip that was released before the town hall.

The Sanders operation in the state also has stepped up phone calls in the past 2½ weeks.

“Virtual campaigning, it is the best way to keep everyone safe and promote our candidate,” U.S. Rep. Marc Pocan told volunteers during a Friday night event over Zoom. Pocan is serving as chair of the Sanders campaign.

On Saturday night, Sanders hosted a livestream on the coronavirus pandemic. Bon Iver, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon, was a musical guest.

“I’m here, a one-man rally for Bernie Sanders,” Vernon said. “So much going on, so much fear, so much pain, and there’s a lot of sickness, and there’s a lot of stillness and fear, right now.”

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