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Is Campaigning Possible During a No-Contact Pandemic?

No handshaking or rallies are allowed. Politicians are scrambling to find ways of getting their messages in front of voters who are distracted and in many places barely leaving their homes.

Laguna Beach, Calif. With social distancing and other safety protocols in effect during the pandemic, campaigning has changed drastically. (Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Wayne Goodwin knew this year would seem endless. He chairs the Democratic Party in North Carolina, a state that will see 2020’s most expensive race for governor, one of the most contentious Senate contests and potentially national attention as a battleground state in the presidential election. He hopes to erase or erode GOP majorities in the legislature in time for redistricting while also seeking statewide office himself, trying to win back his old job as insurance commissioner.

Now he has to figure out how to do all that at a time when the normal routines and rituals of politics have been utterly disrupted.

“It is certainly a new landscape, when one typically thinks of meeting voters on their turf at fish fries, parades, town halls, even the local gym and the school, and — poof — that is all gone,” Goodwin says.

Politics in normal times is a contact sport. Candidates attend endless events, hoping to convince voters of their good nature and great ideas by looking them in the eye, shaking their hands and kissing their babies. They’re natural extroverts, secretly or openly looking to emulate Theodore Roosevelt’s ambition “to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.”

Now even family members aren’t attending weddings. With the coronavirus leading to bans on large gatherings of all sorts, campaigns have canceled their own rallies. They’re having a hard time getting their messages out when the virus seems to be all anyone can talk about. They also have to be careful to strike the right tone when people are seeking not just information, but reassurance. 

“Basically, incumbents need to focus 100 percent on helping their constituents stay up to date and informed,” says GOP consultant Dave Carney. “No political sniping or cheap shots — there will be plenty of time down the road for that kind of crap.”

It’s no easy task trying to raise money when people are feeling the pinch due to stock market losses and fear for their own jobs. There are a lot of causes that seem more immediately in need.

“No one wants to raise money right now,” says Gaby Goldstein, director of political strategy for Sister District Project, which supports Democratic legislative candidates. “Candidates are struggling to find the right balance between needing to raise money and being sensitive to the scale of this crisis.”

Much of the work of politics was already being done digitally. All of that — the texting and the videos and the tele-town halls — will accelerate this year. Parties and politicians will find ways of contacting voters. But campaigning is not going to be like anyone expected when the year began. 

“Political scientists will be writing books about this going forward,” Goodwin says, “because we haven’t seen any campaign season like this.”

Conventions Are Moving Online

Nine states have postponed primaries, most recently Pennsylvania and Rhode Island on Monday. Other states have canceled in-person caucuses and primary voting, shifting to all-mail voting. States are also loosening rules when it comes to absentee voting. Many election experts argue that Congress needs to promote or mandate mail-in voting in time for the general election in November.

The national party conventions haven’t been called off yet, but state and local parties are scrambling to move their own conventions online. The rules vary widely by state, but in many places, the actual selection of delegates to the national party conventions happen at state, county and congressional district conventions. In some cases, those conventions also pick party nominees for down-ballot offices such as legislative seats.

In North Carolina, Democrats last week pushed back the dates of all county and congressional district conventions and decided to hold them all online. “As a state party, we are frenetically scouring through and interviewing vendors for the herculean task of holding 100 simultaneous conventions online,” Goodwin says.

In Colorado, participants in Republican county assemblies are receiving ballots in the mail. They’ll gather around their computer screens while virtual conventions are being held and then send in their votes by mail after hearing all the speeches. 

Denise Mund, who chairs the Jefferson County Republican Party, notes that the average age of people who attended recent local party caucuses was 62. Not all of them are used to doing things online.

“We did an electronic sign-in system for caucus and there were still about 60 people that did not give us an email address,” Mund says. “There’s no way for us to get them into the assembly online without an email address, so we’re having to contact them all.”

Coronavirus May Affect What’s on the Ballot

Where primaries haven’t already taken place, party leaders will have a difficult time convincing prospective candidates that this is the year in which to run. In states where candidates have to qualify for the ballot by gathering valid voter signatures, lawmakers are already hearing pleas to move back deadlines or lower the threshold in terms of numbers of signatures needed.

“Minor parties in at least six or seven states have made formal requests to state election officials to modify the number of signatures or the deadline,” says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. “Generally, the state election officials haven't responded yet. If states say ‘no,’ lawsuits will be filed.”

Signature gathering in support of ballot initiatives has also ground to a halt. Many states don’t have deadlines to qualify for the November ballot until the summer, but ballot measure campaigns have already taken a hit.

“We’re working with our partners and allies on how do we move forward, not only collecting signatures in order to put some of these measures on the ballot, but also what does organizing looking like during a pandemic,” says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “Many have already made adjustments for the short term, pulling people off the doors or putting off signature campaigns.”

Making Contact Without Physical Contact

While many forms of traditional campaigning have gone into deep freeze, political work hasn’t stopped altogether. “I know for a fact, even right now in the middle of this crisis, there are political groups still conducting canvassing operations, going door to door and trying to identify voters,” says Dick Wadhams, former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. “People are at home. They might not answer the door and certainly are not touching, but they’re answering questions that are posed to them.”

Voters may not be out and about, in other words, but they’re more of a captive audience. They might be busy rearranging their own lives and caring for their kids, but they’re also hungry for information. For some, politics provides a bit of a break — something to think about that’s still important but isn’t directly related to public health.

If they’re stuck at home, they might even look at mail pieces. “It’s been easier, in this first wave, to get people on the phone,” says Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Many, many people are in their homes, and there’s a lot of interest in talking to people.”

Organizers are “dusting off old strategies,” Figueredo says. Reaching people by phone or personal email or letter is “organizing 101,” she says.

While everything old is new again, candidates and campaigns know they face a challenge at a time when county fairs are likely to be canceled and handshaking is a health risk. “Everyone needs to take another look at their field plan and start to put together a plan for what voter contact looks like without the actual physical contact,” Goldstein says.

This campaign season had already seen a notable spike in text messaging by campaigns. That will continue. Candidates will star in a lot of TikTok and Instagram videos in hopes of winning voter attention. Recent cycles have seen an uptick in virtual phone banks, with activists calling up potential voters in other states. That may accelerate, although some campaigns will be sure to feature local voices — local doctors and teachers and laid-off workers — in their videos.

As candidates struggle with getting their messages in front of voters, they also have to think carefully about their tone. This is a time when people are paying close attention to government leadership. No doubt by the fall there will be recriminations and finger-pointing. 

For now, however, many candidates want to echo the sense that we’re all in this together.

“You’ve got to draw out the differences, but I think there is a danger in being too partisan,” says Wadhams, the former Colorado GOP chair. “It’s a fine line that candidates will have to walk in this election, for sure.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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