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How campaigns are adjusting to COVID-19

How campaigns are adjusting to COVID-19
© iStock/Madeline Monroe

Fundraisers held on Zoom. Leaflets left on doors that go unknocked. Volunteers phone banking from home. Cavernous offices empty but for a few socially distanced staffers.

Welcome to campaigning in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, a bizarre landscape in which all that is ordinary has been upended and candidates and their aides must find new ways of interacting with voters, volunteers and donors without the benefit of a handshake or a high-five.

With just 4 1/2 months to go until Election Day, staffers and strategists say some of the most fundamental elements of campaign politics are shifting dramatically. The elements of a typical campaign — rallies and parades, town hall meetings and coffee shop visits, pizza-fueled volunteers packed into offices dialing for votes — are all out the window as the nation suffers through a new spike in coronavirus cases.

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Instead, campaigns are using online platforms like Zoom to hold fundraisers and town hall meetings. Those platforms also help volunteers connect custom software to a voter file, through which they can contact undecided voters while maintaining some sense of community over their computer screens.

“Campaigns, like all businesses, are struggling with how to connect with people, how to engage folks,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist who advises candidates in Houston. “How we engage with each other is at the heart of a good campaign, and just like we’re changing that in the workplace, we’re changing that in our families, we’re also changing that in campaigns.”

The coronavirus crisis has put a hold on grand plans to deploy armies of field teams to register new voters or turn out those who might otherwise stay home on Election Day. Myriad outside groups who had plotted big mobilization efforts are now rethinking, and the few campaigns that have resumed canvassing neighborhoods are leaving fliers on doorknobs rather than knocking on doors to engage voters in a conversation.

Candidates themselves may be poorer for the lack of going door to door and having encounters in which they can learn about the issues voters want to discuss, in a language voters find most accessible.

“Knocking on doors, shaking hands and personally interacting with voters is the best way for a candidate to learn what is most important to a local community,” said Jon Thompson, a former communications director at the Republican Governors Association. “To make up for that, candidates will need to do more frequent polling to get a better grasp on issues, rethink how they will message virtually and at a distance and get more creative with fundraising dollars that might have dried up.”

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It is not clear how the coronavirus crisis, the resulting economic catastrophe and the protests over police brutality following the police killing of George Floyd will change the conversation voters want to hear in November. Those cascading events have come on so quickly that they leave some considering what else can and will change in a few short months.

Gale Kaufman, a Sacramento-based Democratic strategist, said some of her clients face looming deadlines to submit statements to the secretary of state’s office that will appear in a voter’s guide in October. How relevant those statements will be, four long months down the road, is a concern.

At the moment, voters seem put off by full-on campaigning, Kaufman said. In focus groups conducted over the last six weeks, voters have talked about their fears and feelings of isolation — issues that do not typically come up in a political campaign.

“There was a clear sense that full-on political advertising was off point and at worst tone deaf,” Kaufman said. “Candidates who aren’t involved with their community on outreach related to COVID, candidates who just try to get by on a list of ‘issues’ may find no one is listening.”

But opportunities to reach new voters through paid media not only still exist, but they are expanding. Research by media monitoring firms shows employees working from home consume three hours of additional media and that cable news channels especially are benefitting.

The ratings agency Nielsen has projected that people under lockdown will spend 60 percent more time with various media outlets, be they television, internet or streaming services.

Though candidates are having trouble breaking through the chaos of news media, not to mention the noise of a presidential campaign that is only just beginning its general election phase, some see the issue matrix as fundamentally unchanged from the midterm elections, when health care and the economy took center stage. The difference is that those issues are now viewed through a new lens.

“Even now, the health care messaging around pre-existing conditions from the ads that won Democrats the 2018 election continues to lead voters’ concerns. Just expect a new twist: Everything candidates communicate has to be in context of the pandemic,” said Amy Gooden, a Democratic strategist in Chicago.

As candidates navigate an uncertain future, the path ahead is far bleaker for those who support ballot measure campaigns. Those campaigns must collect tens or hundreds of thousands of signatures, efforts that are not practical at a time when social distancing is en vogue.

Some ballot measure campaigns have surrendered already, acknowledging they do not have the resources or the time to gather the necessary signatures. Others have won reprieves, through court orders that either grant them more time to collect signatures or allow them to collect digital signatures for the first time. 

In Michigan, one ballot measure to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people is collecting signatures via DocuSign. In Washington, D.C., a proposed initiative to legalize some psychedelic drugs has mailed petitions to individual voters.

But for those initiatives that do qualify for the ballot, and the candidates whose names will appear alongside them, two more troubling unknowns loom: Who is going to show up to vote in the midst of a pandemic, and how are they going to cast their ballots? 

Millions of voters have signed up to receive mail-in ballots during primary elections, and both Democrats and Republicans, in spite of President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE’s demonization of mail-in ballots, are urging their core voters to do so for November’s general elections.

The coronavirus crisis and the rise in absentee ballot use is making campaigns focus far more on building turnout operations geared toward mail-in ballots, said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist.

There are “potential[ly] huge changes in how folks vote,” Carney said in an email. “We might have record high turnout in spite of Covid-19.”