Each week, the Trump campaign says, its staff and volunteers knock on one million American doors. And each week, the Biden campaign knocks on zero.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s team has no plans to begin door-to-door canvassing because of COVID-19. “If you asked anybody off the record from the Biden campaign, I think they’d be like ‘Yeah, we want to be on doors.’ The reality is we still have a pandemic going on,” Jason Henry, leader of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, told Politico. “Those conversations are still being had because we want to make sure we do this safely.”
That’s a prudent and admirable desire. But deciding against door-knocking isn’t safety. It’s security theater, and it may well do the Biden campaign more harm than good.
“Security theater” is a term coined by Bruce Schneier, a tech security expert who lectures at Harvard, and its original context was the war on terror. As Schneier defines it, the phrase “refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.” Early in the pandemic, condemnation of Florida’s decision to open its beaches was security theater, as outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is extremely unlikely with basic social distancing. A more classic example is the TSA. Most of its procedures — like body scans — do little to protect air travel from terrorism, but they make the public feel like something is being done.
That feeling is nice, and politicians like to provide it in hope we’ll will accord our votes to the source of our nice feelings. “The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders,” Schneier explained a decade ago. “When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.”
Declining to door knock because of COVID-19 doesn’t make any sense. This is an activity easily done safely. It is usually outdoors, where risk of transmission is low. (Skipping apartment buildings with indoor hallways would be a reasonable precaution.) It can be performed in a mask, and it does not require participants to get within six feet of each other. The literature handoff can be done at a distance — a volunteer could place the paper on the ground for the voter to pick up instead of handing it to them directly — and thus is no riskier than receiving mail or the contactless literature drops the Biden campaign plans to start soon. The interactions are brief, a few minutes at most. In every way, this is a safe activity with a minimal risk of coronavirus transmission. Canceling door-to-door canvassing “for safety” is security theater, nothing more.
It’s also just bad campaign strategy. Studies show most campaign activities are remarkably useless, particularly in general elections at the federal level. Very few voters are persuadable. Campaigns spend enormous sums of money for incredibly little change in support or turnout. However, though the evidence is conflicting, door-knocking performs better than any other standard means of mass voter contact, particularly if the conversations are substantive and memorable. Canvassing can even be cheaper in terms of votes secured than methods like direct mail and phone banking. The Biden campaign says it’s focusing on “conversations,” and maybe phone calls and texts will prove as effective as canvassing, but that’s quite a gamble — and a needless one.
Intriguingly — though unsurprising given the hyperbolic, performative nature of campaigning — Biden’s COVID-19 policy plan is generally not security theater, at least not indisputably so given basic agreement that the pandemic is real and should be mitigated. The promise to “[i]nvest in next-generation testing, including at-home tests and instant tests” is excellent, though the verb is wrong: The reason we don’t have home testing is not scarcity of investment but excessive federal regulation.
I might apply the security theater label to Biden’s proposal to create “a Pandemic Testing Board like Roosevelt’s War Production Board.” I’m not sure how this differs from his suggestion of a “Supply Commander” or extant federal orders, and the proposal seems primarily designed to link Biden to a revered president past. I’d certainly apply the label to Biden’s national mask mandate, not because masks don’t work (they do) but because the mandate won’t work. It’s unlikely to survive legal challenge. Moreover, governors who haven’t issued mask mandates would very possibly tell police in their state not to enforce Biden’s order, particularly if a court case were already underway. The constitutional and enforcement realities turn a national mandate into security theater.
Biden doesn’t need these theatrics to model responsibility. He doesn’t need to promise a probably impossible mandate or sacrifice door-to-door canvassing. His campaign already has a slew of other COVID-19 precautions, many very visible, that advertise his position well. Anyway, the first pledge in Biden’s COVID-19 plan is that he’ll “[l]isten to science.” Well, science says brief, masked, no-contact, outdoor interactions are safe. Eschewing door-knocking is useless drama.