March 6, 2020 Atlanta - President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press as Director Robert Redfield (right) looks at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Trump’s Georgia campaign pivots to digital amid pandemic

The spreading coronavirus pandemic has transformed Donald Trump’s campaign into a digital-only operation, forcing a president who relishes big rallies to resort to phone banks and virtual conferences to connect with voters. 

And that presents a particularly difficult challenge to Trump’s growing Georgia operation, which has for months been working to fend off Democrats who see the state as the next juicy political battleground. 

Like other political campaigns, the Trump operation in Georgia quickly had to confront the reality of an election without traditional campaigning. 

Unlike other political campaigns, the Trump operation in Georgia had a tremendous amount of infrastructure on the ground to pivot. 

The campaign has more than 70 staffers in Georgia, surpassing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and every other candidate on the 2020 ballot in sheer number of personnel. 

With the coronavirus crisis upending daily life, the hands-on work of training volunteers suddenly turned to entirely virtual affairs. Activists focused on door-to-door canvassing were retrained in the art of remote contacting by phone or online meetups, said Savannah Viar, Trump’s Georgia spokeswoman. 

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The transformation comes with an entirely new script embedded in a smartphone app.  

Volunteers are advised to first ask about each voter’s health and then told to direct them to find more information about the pandemic from state, local and federal sources. After those two steps, they’re then directed to discuss Trump’s “strong leadership” during the crisis before closing with another safety message about the illness. 

The shift has been rapid. Trump’s Georgia operation has conducted more than two dozen training events through online conferencing apps since transitioning to digital about two weeks ago, said Viar. The campaign said it’s reached more than 173,000 in this new online-only era. 

Another sign of the overhaul: Two weeks ago, the Trump campaign held a “National Day of Action” – a massive phone-banking event that hit a unique milestone. For the first time, not a single call was made from a campaign office. All of them were conducted from volunteers’ homes. 

There’s reason for the buildup. Unlike in 2016, when both candidates largely ignored Georgia, Democrats plan to heavily compete in the state. The dual U.S. Senate races and competitive House contests add even more incentive for both parties to devote talent and treasure here. 

Democrats are buoyed by numbers shifting in their direction. The party hasn’t carried Georgia since Bill Clinton’s 1992 election, but Trump’s 5-point win in 2016 and Gov. Brian Kemp’s even narrower victory two years ago has given them hope that newfound success in the suburbs can flip the state.  

Pro-Trump forces are intent on turning the state into a Republican fortress.

“Having this infrastructure and staff on the ground early is what helped enable us to spring into action and make this shift as quickly as we did,” said Ellie Hockenbury, a Republican National Committee official. 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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