Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus

Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus
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Campaigns are shifting to virtual efforts to engage with voters after suspending events amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With staffers teleworking and candidates stuck either in Washington or in their homes, campaign teams are increasingly pivoting toward spreading information about the coronavirus and pitching in to help residents of their communities rather than spouting political messages.

Multiple interviews with officials on presidential and down-ballot campaigns underscored how candidates have been forced to turn to online media to reach voters as the pandemic simultaneously sidelines the contenders and pushes policy debates to the back burner.

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Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE, who relishes working a rope line and face-to-face interactions with voters, has sought to keep his presidential bid in the limelight with a spree of media appearances and virtual town halls mostly dedicated to the coronavirus after being forced to scrap his in-person events.

The Biden campaign confirmed to The Hill it will be ramping up its digital efforts to try to replace the face time the former vice president would normally get with voters. Events like virtual and phone-in town halls with Biden as well as medical professionals are expected to dominate his calendar, outreach that the campaign hopes will boost his standing heading toward a likely general election match-up with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE.

“He’s one of the best retail politicians in the country, so that face time, the handshakes and the rope line time is super important to him and it’s where he really connects with folks, and I think you'll see from us building out a digital program that still allows him to do that,” the campaign said.

“Having a formidable digital operation will be key and it’ll definitely put us in a position to compete, especially against the Trump campaign.”

For his part, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE (I-Vt.) has substituted his packed rallies with coronavirus town halls that feature medical experts, as well as livestream events with musical guests. Sanders, who is facing down a growing delegate gap against Biden in the Democratic primary, has scrapped much of his political messaging while the senator is in Washington working on coronavirus relief efforts.

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Sanders’s livestreams to date have received more than 14 million views, according to the campaign, which did make an official available for comment to The Hill.

Down-ballot candidates in both parties who don’t boast the hefty campaign accounts of Biden or Sanders are also making the pivot toward digital outreach, with many telling The Hill they’re seeking to help residents directly impacted by the pandemic.

“Of course we’ve had our own challenges of having to convert virtually, but it pales in comparison to what business owners [are experiencing],” said Zack Carroll, campaign manager for Jaime Harrison, a Democrat facing Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSchumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe Graham announces hearing on police use of force after George Floyd killing In a new cold war with China, America may need to befriend Russia MORE (R-S.C.). 

“I can’t even imagine what these folks are going through right now, and frankly that’s on top of Jaime’s mind. We’ll get through this, but we’ve really got to think about the folks that are going to be hit hardest,” he added. 

The Harrison campaign has launched a new phone line to reach rural voters across South Carolina without access to broadband internet.

“We’re running for the folks that don’t have the same luxuries that we do — that face a much more uncertain future given this,” Carroll said. “That’s what our focus is going to be.” 

The reelection campaign for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities MORE (R-Maine), in one of the most closely watched Senate races, is conducting constituent conference calls to increase Collins’s exposure and offering to deliver items to residents who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“It hasn’t happened a lot yet, but people have had those conversations with folks and have offered, especially for some of our elderly neighbors who can’t get out, we’ve offered to go to the grocery store if we safely can do that and drop it off at their doorstep,” Kevin Kelley, Collins’s deputy campaign manager, told The Hill.

Both Amy McGrath and Theresa Greenfield, Democrats who are running against Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFor city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now US ill-prepared for coronavirus-fueled mental health crisis Schumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe MORE (R-Ky.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: National Portrait Gallery's Kim Sajet says this era rewiring people's relationship with culture, art; Trump's war with Twitter heats up The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Cuomo rings the first opening bell since March House Democrats make initial ad buys in battleground states MORE (R-Iowa), respectively, are also sending links to supporters urging them to join in donating to local food banks.

“As our daily lives change, so do the challenges each and every one of us face, and for many people that’s being able to purchase or have access to food. We are trying to close that gap by having neighbors help neighbors through our work with food banks,” McGrath’s campaign told The Hill.

Like Biden and Sanders, many down-ballot contenders are tailoring their message almost entirely around the coronavirus, cutting public safety announcement-style ads to detail health tips and appearing alongside doctors to urge voters to stay safe.

Yet while campaigns are as dedicated as ever to maintaining their outreach, some admit they expect to pay a financial toll as face time with voters all but ceases and donors become increasingly tepid about making contributions.

“I think we’ve seen a huge economic crash and a global pandemic, of course there’s going to be a change of pace, for sure,” said Aaron Simpson, a spokesperson for Cal Cunningham, a Democrat running to unseat Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits Tillis campaign releases first general election TV ad emphasizing 'humble' roots MORE (R-N.C.). “What hasn’t changed is the approach of the campaign and Cal’s mantra that we’re going to meet people where they are regardless of the circumstances.”