The Memo: Coronavirus scrambles the art of campaigning


Political campaigning, like everything in the United States, is being transformed by the coronavirus crisis.

Candidates and campaigns have been left reeling by how suddenly the spread of the virus has changed day-to-day life, consuming every other element of the news agenda and raising hard questions about what electioneering will look like in the months ahead.

The COVID-19 issue will, of course, be the subject of fierce political argument, not least because of widespread criticisms of the Trump administration’s response and misstatements by the president himself. 

The economic impact is severe and sure to get worse — a topic that gives the crisis even more political potency.

But the coronavirus will also have a huge impact on the nuts and bolts of traditional campaigning, both for the president and the Democrats who are hoping to replace him in November.

Some of the first manifestations of that will be seen on Sunday evening, when CNN televises a debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Only a week ago, this was seen as a conventional, if crucial, opportunity for Sanders to knock Biden off course as the former vice president closes in on the Democratic nomination. The two would have debated in Phoenix, in front of the typical large and boisterous audience that attends such events.

Now, the debate has been moved to Washington, and there will be no live audience at all. The event will be an abnormal one in an abnormal time.

Candidates have been candid about simply not knowing where things could go from here. 

“We are in the process of thinking this through,” Sanders told reporters in Vermont on Friday. “This coronavirus has obviously impacted our ability to communicate with people in the traditional way, and that’s hurting us.”

The following evening, Sanders conducted an online “fireside chat” from his home, talking with campaign manager Faiz Shakir. The senator described the crisis as “an unprecedented moment in American and world history” and said it was “astounding how unprepared we are as a nation” to deal with it.

The Biden campaign hosted a virtual town hall on Friday, but it was uneven at best. It was beset by both technical difficulties and the candidate’s apparent unfamiliarity with the concept of live video streaming. Biden walked almost out of the camera shot at one point.

There is also the health of the major candidates to consider. Trump is 73, Biden 77 and Sanders 78. That puts all of them at higher risk of suffering major consequences from the coronavirus, which is most dangerous for older people and those with compromised immune systems.

The issue is particularly pointed in the case of Trump, who has had some form of contact with at least three people who have subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Trump initially seemed resistant to getting tested. But he relented, and a memo from his doctor, released Saturday evening, said the president’s results were negative. The doctor, Sean Conley, declared Trump “symptom-free.”

Last week, the Trump campaign canceled events in Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin. The campaign said it was acting out of an “abundance of caution” amid the coronavirus crisis.

Large-scale events for all candidates are off the agenda for the moment.

The health risks of mass gatherings are evident, and, as a number of political professionals noted in interviews with The Hill, it would be virtually impossible to get thousands of Americans to attend a celebratory, fist-pumping rally in the current anxiety-riven times anyway. Any attempt to do so would likely prove controversial and counterproductive.

But that could be particularly irksome for Trump, who is capable of drawing big crowds in normal circumstances and who appears to get charged up by the adulation they provide.

There is no easy alternative apparent.

“Trump feeds off the energy of those crowds. The question is, what do you do next?” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

“If he can’t do it off of crowds, what does he do? His television appearances, like that Oval Office address [last week], are not good. Will he be acceptable to the late-night hosts that have made other candidates? No, he’s not going to be blowing a saxophone like Bill Clinton. And the Fox audience? He has got them already.”

As a result, Sheinkopf concluded, Trump’s task of expanding his support to a point where he could win a majority in November is “no easy task.”

But Trump, like other candidates, does have some alternatives.

Brad Blakeman, who served in the senior staff of former President George W. Bush’s White House and is a supporter of the current president, said that, in general, “a lot more emphasis is going to be on advertising and earned media and having smaller meetings as opposed to big rallies.”

Blakeman noted that advertising itself could showcase the enthusiasm for any candidate, including the president, by being built around footage from previous rallies. 

And he added that, while TV advertising is costly, the flip side is that no campaign will be spending the money that goes into putting on big events in the near future.

“Sure, it is a missed opportunity,” Blakeman said. “But it is a missed opportunity that affects everyone equally. So the questions are, how long will it go on, how long are you going to be deprived of that, and what are you going to do to make up for lost time once you can get back into doing it?”

There are some less gloomy spots for campaigns. Much campaign work, including canvassing, is already conducted online or via phone. This renders the shuttering of campaign offices and the inability to do door-to-door canvassing less impactful than it would have been even a decade ago. 

Online campaigning will be even more important in the days ahead. And other, older methods of voter contact could have a temporary resurgence. 

Sheinkopf said that he would push any candidate to invest more heavily in direct mail as an effective means of contacting older voters, who are less likely to be online or to want to put themselves at risk by attending in-person events.

For now, however, the picture is scrambled, and no one knows what comes next.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Coronavirus Democratic debate Donald Trump Joe Biden

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