This story has been updated.
WILLMAR — It’s 9 o’clock on a crisp fall morning here in western Minnesota, and about 30 people have gathered at the Kandiyohi County Republican Party headquarters, which is smothered in candidate campaign signs and flags.
Right next door is Jerry’s Flooring, with a sign in the window that says “store closing” in red letters, a stark reminder of the pandemic and the recession it caused, which are weighing heavily on this extraordinary election year.
Nobody is wearing a mask in the GOP office, although one man is holding a Trump mask. He says he thought about putting it on, but decided against it since nobody else is wearing one. The turnout is pretty typical for a county meeting, but today there’s a special guest: John Pence, Mike Pence’s nephew and “senior advisor” to President Donald Trump.
State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, primed the pump, telling the crowd the 2016 Trump campaign was nonexistent in Minnesota. But this year the campaign has a robust Minnesota presence, including a regional field director for the Willmar area, which he said has been an “awesome boost to us and our campaigns.”
About 200 people attended one of his recent events, he said.
“It’s been pretty good to go around and (have people) say, ‘The Trump people have already been here,’ which is something that we’ve just never experienced,” Lang said.
Trump came closer to winning Minnesota than any Republican since Ronald Reagan and has made victory here a priority after losing by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016, despite having no organization to speak of.
The president pumped millions into the state beginning in 2019, trying to create a field operation to identify Trump voters and — just as important — potential Trump voters, and drag them along to the polls.
More than 750,000 non-college white voters did not cast a ballot in 2016. If Trump could merely capture a fraction of these voters, with whom he is said to share a powerful bond, he could win Minnesota.
“I’m 57 years old & this will be my first time voting!” -Chris from Stillwater
Chris & her son Mark will be casting their first ever ballots for President @realDonaldTrump 🇺🇸 #LeadRight pic.twitter.com/orA3DlnW36
— Spencer Krier (@kriers) October 8, 2020
And with Minnesota in his column, a Trump reelection would be a near certainty.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said Trump’s personal commitment has made a difference. “Our party has never been electrified like it is right now because Donald Trump has really lit a fire underneath our party.”
He said he gets a call from the Trump regional field director weekly asking how he’s doing in his race for a fourth term, and what he can do to help.
“We can really do a lot of things with this kind of organization that Trump has brought the state of Minnesota,” he said.
For all the money and organization and enthusiasm, however, there remains for Trump backers a disquieting reality: He’s trailed in every single public poll.
Message discipline: Biden the radical
At the Kandiyohi County Republican Party headquarters, Pence is introduced. Looking about half the median age of the room and dressed in jeans, a button-up and a blazer, he walks in with a reddish-pink scarf tucked in his back pocket rather than on his face.
“We are only 41 days away from reelecting Donald Trump for four more years,” he says to cheers and clapping. “We can win this state of Minnesota in the next 41 days. We really can. … You all see it. We feel it.”
The night before, Pence was in Morris, where a man told him on a recent drive he counted about 100 Trump signs, 10 sweet corn signs and five Biden signs.
“So sweet corn is leading Biden in this area,” Pence quips.
He says the election is about whether America remains America, warning that Joe Biden wants to “fundamentally transform America.”
Biden has never been considered a radical or even much of an ideologue; he’s a 77-year-old practicing Catholic of the old horse-trader model of Washington. During the Democratic primary campaign, he refused to go along with the party’s more progressive proposals like Medicare-for-All and open borders.
He was vice president to a twice-elected Democratic president, and thus far the broader electorate doesn’t seem to be buying the Republican pitch that he’s a wild-eyed leftist.
Still, Pence stays on message. “Radical ideas have radical and real consequences,” Pence says. “In places like Minneapolis, elected officials of this state are calling not just to defund the police, to dismantle the police.”
He promises the president would always defend the police, help keep the Republican Senate majority intact and “stop your governor,” referring to DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who is loathed by Republican die-hards, although a recent Star Tribune poll found that 57% of the public approves of his job performance.
He paints the election as a choice between freedom and government control.
“It’s all on the line,” Pence says.
Then everybody crowds together for a mask-less photo before Pence leaves for Hutchinson.
In person vs. virtual
Using Trump’s app to find events, the Reformer discovered that if you wanted to go to some kind of Trump Victory event every day in Minnesota beginning in late August, you could.
You could hit a MAGA meetup, knock on doors for Trump, call people for Trump or train to become a Trump leader, in cities from Nisswa to Chanhassen to Rochester.
Every day, there was a Trump event going on somewhere in Minnesota. Only the training sessions were virtual.
By contrast, Biden’s app takes a more digital approach. When you sign up for the app, it asks for permission to see your contacts, and informs you of how, through the power of connections, they can be translated into over, say, 100,000 “allies.” You can earn points for your efforts, like texting a friend. The theory goes, they’ll text a friend too, and so on.
When you look for events similar to Trump’s, the Biden app is dominated by virtual events like debate watch parties over Zoom, a Minnesotans for Joe meeting over Zoom, a St. Paul virtual phone bank, a “Meditation for Joe and Kamala.”
And therein lies the difference between the two campaigns: the Trump campaign is knocking on doors, holding crowded mask-less events, and bringing first-, second- and third-tier stumpers out to audiences of a dozen.
Biden and the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party are well funded and well organized, but have essentially handcuffed themselves, committing to safe campaigning that precludes widespread door knocking, for instance.
They keep most events virtual and do not hold rallies. In what may be a preview of the future, the DFL’s ground game is as much video game as it is traditional field work.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis crowed about the huge gap between the two approaches, tweeting, “Y’all are behind the 8 ball on the ‘organizing’ component of your strategy. The Joe Biden/Tina Smith/Minnesota DFL ground game is non-existent.”
DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said his party has always had a top-notch, world-class voter contact program that invests heavily in the ground game, but the pandemic forced longtime campaign operatives to rethink all of their tactics.
“There’s no playbook on any of this,” he said. “The reality is none of us has run a campaign during a pandemic.”
In March, the Democrats decided to start campaigning virtually — phoning, texting, using digital apps to organize — and stopped in-person events. He was concerned, he said, because Trump had one of the largest GOP campaigns in memory.
But now he says the DFL operation is the largest Minnesota campaign ever assembled, “probably by a factor of two.”
“We made really deep investments in organizing in the state,” he said.
But he admits it keeps him up at night, worrying whether it was the right decision.
“Clearly the Republicans have thrown caution to the wind; they continue to campaign irresponsibly and recklessly, endangering the lives of people who participate in events,” he said. “We don’t have to look much farther back than Donald Trump’s super spreader event up in Duluth,” he said, referring to the fateful rally on Sept. 30 when Trump was already infected.
The Republicans are doing a lot of things the DFL used to do: opening field offices, holding in-person events, knocking on doors, holding rallies.
“And so that makes me very nervous and anxious,” Martin said.
But he hasn’t seen any slip in the numbers of voters the DFL is contacting by only using digital and virtual tools; in fact, they’ve had an increase.
“It buoys me. It gives me a great reason for optimism,” he said.
The party has a record-high 2,700 volunteers, who’ve not knocked many doors but have made 3.6 million phone calls in Minnesota — 5 million if you count calls from out of state — and held lots of virtual events, from virtual phone banks to surrogate events.
“There’s great enthusiasm on our side,” Martin said.
He still worries about the final campaign stretch, and said the party will probably loosen some protocols and allow some volunteers to knock on doors.
“But we are very serious about following science and facts; making sure we’re not contributing to the spread of COVID-19, particularly as it looks like it’s starting to spike up again around the country,” he said.
On the safety front, Preya Samsundar, spokeswoman for the Republican National Commitee,* said the party’s entire field operation went digital nationwide in mid-March, and in early June began transitioning back to in-person campaigning with safeguards.
(The Reformer saw few people social distancing or wearing masks at Trump events.)
She said the party’s voter contact metrics didn’t slow down at all, hitting a million by early summer, and its data-driven ground game has allowed it to build an army of volunteers.
“We really are leaving no stone unturned,” Samsundar said.
But what about those polls showing Trump still trails Biden despite all the visits and resources Republicans have poured into Minnesota?
“If polling were gospel, Hillary Clinton would be president,” she said.
Hutchinson draws a dozen
After the Willmar Trump event, John Pence is in Hutchinson.
A worker for the McLeod County Republicans and a single volunteer appear at the appointed hour. The man is complaining about “Dumbocrats” and says he tuned out the media long ago.
The walls are lined with Republican candidates’ signs, including a thick pile of Trump signs.
More people trickle in, and there are about a dozen by the time Pence speaks for roughly 20 minutes, a similar talk to the one he gave in Willmar. He says Minnesota is about to make history by electing the “most pro-life president in history” and rejecting Biden and his “radical” ideas.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, speaks briefly, saying Mayor Jacob Frey and Walz “negotiated with criminals” in the wake of the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.
And then everybody goes outside and crowds together for a photo.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the organization for whom Preya Samsundar is spokesman.