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It's easy to tune out politics. Biden's campaign is using an app to get around that

The Reach app, as seen on volunteer Sarah Harrison's phone, allows Biden supporters to share content directly with their contacts, and is connected to a national Democratic party voter database.
Maayan Silver
/
WUWM
The Reach app, as seen on volunteer Sarah Harrison's phone, allows Biden supporters to share content directly with their contacts, and is connected to a national Democratic party voter database.

Last weekend, Kimberlee Foster, 63, staked out the parking lot near a pop-up soul food restaurant in Milwaukee, phone in hand, looking for young voters.

It was chilly, with snow flurries, so she was strategic and approached just before people got out of their warm cars.

The retired police officer was talking to people about voting in Wisconsin's primary election next month, and then plugging their information into an app on her phone — an app that feeds information into a national database that the Democratic party will use later this year to turn out supporters for the presidential election.

Reaching voters is harder than ever in this age when people are constantly on their phones, deep in social media information silos, and actively avoiding political ads and news. The Biden campaign is hoping the app will help them connect with hard-to-reach voters.

While she doesn't fit the profile of someone on the cutting edge of campaign technology, Foster said she was willing to venture out of her comfort zone to avoid a replay of the 2016 election, when former President Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin and the presidency.

"I'm not on the computer every day doing computer work," said Foster. "And I really don't care about the phone being super-techy."

President Biden speaks to supporters and volunteers at the opening of Democrats' coordinated campaign headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisc. on March 13.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks to supporters and volunteers at the opening of Democrats' coordinated campaign headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisc. on March 13.

Foster was part of a pilot project for the Biden campaign and the Wisconsin Democratic Party testing a smartphone app called Reach. The project looked at whether the app could help reach Black voters in North Milwaukee, where there traditionally haven't been many campaign volunteers.

Democrats are also using the app in Republican-heavy suburbs

The party is also testing the app — originally developed during the first campaign of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — to see if it helps bring out votes from women in Republican-heavy suburban counties around Milwaukee.

Sarah Harrison, 46, was introduced to it at a recent house party she attended with other Democrats in Waukesha County. It's a county that votes Republican, but has enough Democrats that it could help tip Wisconsin to Biden again this November.

The volunteers at the party all installed the app, and then were prompted to give it access to their address books.

Sarah Harrison knocks on doors for Democrats on March 17 in Waukesha, Wisc., working through a list of 29 addresses that the party database said were home to likely Democratic voters.
Maayan Silver / WUWM
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WUWM
Sarah Harrison knocks on doors for Democrats on March 17 in Waukesha, Wisc., working through a list of 29 addresses that the party database said were home to likely Democratic voters.

"There were some folks that were a little hesitant," said Harrison.

The app matches up phone contacts with a national Democratic party voter database, including information about voting history. The app also supplies a regular stream of pro-Biden content and messages that volunteers can personalize and text directly to their friends.

"It allows you to send the message that is most relevant to those folks that you know, and for them to get it from someone that they trust and they know personally," said Harrison.

There is a risk of creating an echo chamber

In a room full of super-volunteers, this feature initially led to comical results. "Multiple folks in the room had each other in their phones, so we're sending messages across the room to each other," said Harrison.

And that is a risk with this kind of tool, says Elliott Echols, who until recently was the political director at the Republican National Committee.

Volunteers "who think their other friends are liberal are going to be sending them messages, and it kind of just turns into an echo chamber," he said.

As Echols sees it, the Biden campaign is lagging behind Trump when it comes to the enthusiasm of base voters and with the quality of their data on voters.

"It feels like they're trying to use this to catch up and try to get in touch with people," said Echols.

Biden campaign volunteer Sarah Harrison speaks with voter Autumn Dietscher on March 16 about Waukesha School Board elections and Wisconsin's presidential primary.
Maayan Silver / WUWM
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WUWM
Biden campaign volunteer Sarah Harrison speaks with voter Autumn Dietscher on March 16 about Waukesha School Board elections and Wisconsin's presidential primary.

Democrats are happy with the results so far

But Democrats say the app has been helpful. "More than half of the voters that volunteers are contacting through Reach are people that are not already on our voter list," said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, who was involved in the pilot.

He said the tool is "exactly what we need, because the way that we win is through addition rather than subtraction."

The Biden campaign is making it a key pillar in its effort to connect with voters — along with other tried-and-true methods like door knocking and phone banking.

"This needs to be part of the arsenal in reaching voters who are hard to reach," said Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager for Biden.

He says people are tuned out and trust in institutions is low. And that's a challenge.

"The people that they trust the most are their friends and family. If you look at what a campaign needs to do in that environment, it is: figure out how to talk to people through their friends and family," he said.

WUWM's Maayan Silver contributed reporting for this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.