Matthew Page is too young to vote, but that does not mean he is sitting out this election.

“I just want to try to help my party as best I can,” he said.

Page recently participated in a canvassing event in Nash County, knocking on doors and advocating for local Republican candidates.

“You can get that person-to-person contact. You can really talk to them and just let them know how important it is to vote in every election,” he said.

Door-to-door canvassing is a longtime staple of election season - a chance to engage with potential voters face-to-face. But in 2020, the global pandemic is reshaping this tradition, and the two parties are reacting very differently.

The story is part of a series called “Battleground 2020: North Carolina,” which follows up on a 2019 Spectrum News 1 series looking at the state of play in North Carolina ahead of this year’s election.


Two Different Approaches

Republican Party chairs in a handful of counties across North Carolina said they continue to embrace canvassing, albeit with some safety modifications. All told, the state’s Republican Party says they have knocked on at least 1 million doors.

“We are out. We are knocking on doors. We're social distancing,” said Donna Williams, chair of the Wake County GOP.

“We have door knockers, but they're wearing masks and that sort of thing … it’s an unusual year,” said Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County GOP.

Meanwhile, Democrats in various North Carolina regions have held back, forgoing these sorts of in-person contacts, citing health concerns.

In Union County, for example, Democratic Party Chair Pam DeMaria said the pandemic effectively cut their strategy off at the knees. Without in-person door knocking, they’ve focused on other types of outreach, including Zoom town halls.

But, she says, it has not been easy.

“Everybody’s doing Zooms. You get zoomed out,” she said. “What is going to bring people to a discussion? And what kind of entertainment can you bring with it?”

This contrast is not unique to the Tar Heel State.

Nationally, the Trump campaign has embraced traditional canvassing despite the pandemic, while the Biden campaign has, until just recently, shied away from it, focusing instead on digital organizing and virtual events, including hosting several with North Carolina voters.


The Election Implications

In North Carolina, where polling suggests the election results will be close and every vote will count, will these two different approaches make a difference?

Prof. Michael Bitzer, who teaches political science at Catawba College, likened it to an experiment playing out in real time.

“[Canvassing is] part of the war environment that campaigns enter into. It's a ground war, and it's an air war in terms of advertising. The ground war dynamic really is being split in terms of partisanship, based on concerns about public health,” he said.

Are Democrats worried they might be at a disadvantage?

Laurel Birch Kilgore, the executive director of the Wake County Democratic Party, tried to put a positive spin on things.

“[Canvassing] is certainly one of the strongest tools any campaign can have. So we're aware of that. But we're doing the texting, the phone banking, the [literature] dropping, everything else we can do,” she said.

Pounding the pavement, Page meanwhile said he is hopeful the conversations he is having door-to-door about Republican candidates will have an impact.

“We’re just trying to let them know they should vote,” he said.