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Pandemic spurs Trump campaign to shift into digital-only operation

As the campaign of President Donald Trump learned he would declare a state of emergency in the United States on March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, plans to maintain a digital-savvy re-election bid were expedited into a mandated digital-only reality.

And it happened fast.

“We were a completely virtual operation within 24 hours,” said Keith Schipper, the campaign’s Nevada spokesman. “We have 807 people across the states, with more than 30 here in Nevada. We have a big leg up in this election, and we feel like we can really move mountains.”

Training volunteers and staff meetings are now entirely virtual — usually through Zoom, Google Hangouts or other conference call apps. Campaign surrogates are using those same tools to beam into gatherings of staff or supporters.

During its most recent “week of action,” a monthly operation that includes several days of training culminating in a full day of volunteers calling voters on a Saturday, the campaign kept up its usual schedule of more than 300 training sessions.

From March 13-19, 1,390 volunteers were trained and nearly 1.8 million calls were made using an in-house app, according to a field operations explanation sheet provided to the Review-Journal by the campaign.

A video narrated by Trump adviser John Pence explains how to use the app, which allows volunteers to use their cellphone, landline or computer to make calls with no help needed from the campaign or its organizers.

The volunteers can mark if a person participated in the survey, hung up on the caller, wasn’t home and so on with the push of a button.

It includes a script, which this month focused almost solely on coronavirus response and not traditional election issues. There is an option to practice the prepared greetings, questions, responses and closings, though volunteers are encouraged to be conversational and can occasionally veer off script if they feel like it.

“It’s a weird time,” Schipper said. “We want them to vote, but we’re not focusing on that as much as finding out how they’re doing. We’re directing voters to state and local information. We have a lot of seniors that we call, so we’re asking things like ‘Can we bring you groceries?’”

If the volunteer reaches a voter’s voicemail box, a recording of Trump adviser and daughter-in-law Lara Trump is used with another push of a button. That voicemail also said little about the actual election and focused solely on coronavirus aid.

Schipper said the new online program allowed Trump supporters, who might otherwise be stuck at home, to feel as if they’re accomplishing something by making these calls — all while filling a major need for the campaign.

The March 19 day of action brought in more volunteers than in any previous month, Schipper said. In Nevada alone, nearly 100,000 voters were contacted.

The app connects volunteers to voters within their own state. Those voters are people Republicans want to turn out as identified by the campaign’s data system, which Schipper said has had hundreds of millions of dollars poured into it.

Trump supporters will be able to use the campaign website to schedule gatherings after social distancing is no longer needed.

In praise of the Trump operation, Schipper also criticized the Democratic Party.

“The Democrats’ strategy is to text Republicans to go vote in a caucus they’re not allowed to participate in,” Schipper said, in reference to the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Feb. 22 caucuses.

He added that most Democratic operatives within Nevada fled the state after the caucuses.

“We’re still here, and they’re not,” Schipper said.

While many political operatives left town as the campaigns did, the Democrats do maintain a year-round organizing presence that will be strengthened by an investment from the Democratic National Committee.

Spokeswoman Molly Forgey said the state Democrats are in the strongest position they’ve ever been in, with some 17,000 new Democrats registered during the caucuses and an increasing registration lead over Republicans — including the recent Democratic overtaking of Washoe County.

“With a successful caucus behind us, NV Dems isn’t slowing down,” Forgey said. “We are expanding our team, growing our field operation and ramping up our ground game to reject Donald Trump for a second time.”

Contact Rory Appleton at rappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0276. Follow @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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