Online campaigning poses new challenge for reaching minorities

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Social distancing measures are pushing political campaigns online ahead of November’s election, a move that poses new challenges for reaching minority voters, particularly those with limited or no internet access.

Internet usage and media consumption varies among demographic groups, meaning the campaigns for President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are having to target different groups in different ways.

“The largest challenge that the campaign has experienced with COVID lockouts is not everybody has internet connectivity. But there is the option to get on the phone and stuff like that, and it just forced the campaign to get very creative in the ways where they’re meeting these communities,” said a Biden campaign official.

Eighty-two percent of white households have computers at home, compared with 58 percent for black households and 57 percent of Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center. 

But the 2019 study also found that smartphone usage was comparable across the board, creating an opportunity for politicians to reach minority voters.

“The conversation that’ll be missing this year at the [household] doors if we don’t get this thing fixed, it’ll happen over their phones,” said Chuck Rocha, architect of Hispanic outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ended his White House bid last week and endorsed Biden on Monday. 

Removing door-to-door campaigning, Rocha said, could ultimately make messaging more effective for campaigns. 

“This is gonna be a very unpopular thing to say: Talking to people at their doors one-on-one is the most powerful form of communication, but it’s also the most inefficient,” he said.

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns are confident they can adjust to the new normal of campaigning online and reaching minority voters.

“The Trump Campaign has a significant advantage because of our long-term investment in data and technological infrastructure,” Ken Farnaso, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, wrote in an email to The Hill. “Because of those advantages, our coalition teams have been able to quickly shift gears and jump right into engaging with voters and volunteers digitally.” 

While the Trump campaign is expected to use its considerable financial resources to mount a digital campaign on a massive scale, the Biden camp is focusing its efforts on weekly calls with community leaders across the country, such as African American faith leaders.

The Biden campaign said it is building an African American Leadership Council in each state with the calls and looking for participants to expand the campaign’s message to their communities by word of mouth.

The campaign is similarly engaging directly with Hispanic and Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders, getting its message out through conference calls in the absence of door-to-door engagements.

“COVID has made campaigns adapt. The smart ones will adapt, the stubborn ones probably won’t,” said Gisel Aceves, the political director of Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm. 

“The things that we’re fighting for as Democrats, Bold PAC — as Latinos in politics — aren’t abstract anymore. COVID has sort of exposed the inequality at every level — from health care, from access to broadband, dignity and safety and work conditions, from education. All of that is sort of in our face now,” she added.

Aceves said Bold PAC, which supports all Hispanic Democratic congressional candidates and a slew of non-Hispanic Democrats, is encouraging campaigns to pivot their messaging by also offering voters COVID-related information. 

“It helps build community, and sort of a baseline, where right now the typical ways of engaging just don’t exist,” said Aceves. “It’s never been good enough to reach out to Latinos just during [get out the vote] weekend, the weekend before an election. It’s even less efficient now.” 

Democrats are pursuing the least-likely-to-participate minority voters, who in 2018 were key for the party’s House win, to boost the level of turnout they will need to be successful in November.

“While the coronavirus restrictions have caused us to adapt the work we’re doing in the field, we’re continuing to reach communities of color through phone banking, texting, TV, radio, digital, and more,” said Fabiola Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, which has outraised its GOP counterpart so far during this election cycle.

Still, cultural competency — reaching voters on channels they use for information on issues they care about — could determine whether voters respond to campaigns, according to Rocha. 

Rocha said he’s concerned that Democratic investment in minority voters will be translated to an online version of the usual last-minute field work to try to drum up turnout, rather than a consistent investment in convincing those voters.

“So we’re gonna go knock on these Latino doors … when they could have been sending them a piece of mail every week, they could have been talking to them on Spanish-language radio every week for six months, they could have been on the TV talking to them for six months — that’s what they do with white voters,” said Rocha. 

“What I’m begging is that they treat a Latino voter like a white voter, and they will perform like a white voter in terms of turnout,” he said.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 elections Bernie Sanders Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden minority voters Pew

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