The Near-Impossibility of Campaigning During a Pandemic
The process of seeking elected office looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago
On March 9, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced that he was throwing his hat in the ring to challenge incumbent Republican Steve Daines for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Six days later he announced that the state’s schools would close. Five days after that, he ordered the closing of all bars and restaurants. By March 24, Montanans were being told to stay at home and gatherings of more than 10 people were forbidden.
It’s a less than ideal way to begin a statewide campaign for Senate.
According to Bullock’s campaign adviser, Matt McKenna, “Nearly everything is on hold indefinitely.” Campaign events have been canceled and, unlike other Senate candidates, Bullock has eschewed virtual events, like town halls. Instead, says McKenna, the candidate, who is also the state’s chief executive, is “primarily focused on keeping Montanans safe.”
But for his campaign staff, everything has changed. They are “trying to figure out how to do every other aspect of the campaign,” says McKenna. It “feels like reinventing the wheel.”
Bullock’s staff is hardly alone.
Whether candidates are running for dog-catcher or leader of the free world, the process of seeking elected office looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago. The usual fare of U.S. elections — rallies, roundtables, door-to-door canvassing, and even voter registration initiatives — will be on hiatus for the foreseeable future. State and local conventions are now being held remotely, and it seems only a matter of time before Democrats cancel or dramatically alter their national convention planned for mid-July in Milwaukee.
Virtually all presidential primaries have been pushed back to June or will be conducted completely by mail. A notable exception is Wisconsin, which will hold an in-person primary on April 7.
Joe Biden has gone from beating the hustings in primary states to broadcasting speeches from the basement of his Delaware home and holding virtual events with supporters and donors. Bernie Sanders is hosting online events as well and redirecting his campaign to coronavirus education events and fundraising for those affected by the pandemic. The Trump campaign has begrudgingly canceled rallies and is hosting surrogate events online — though still finding time to inundate reporters with rapid response and opposition research press releases.
Senate candidates challenging entrenched incumbents, like Democrats Sara Gideon in Maine and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, are holding virtual health care town halls and filling their Facebook pages with video statements. In Massachusetts, Rep. Joe Kennedy, who is taking on incumbent Senator Ed Markey in one of the highest profile primary challenges, has taken the unusual step of focusing exclusively on communicating with voters about the coronavirus pandemic.
Perhaps the biggest political price from coronavirus is being paid by candidates challenging better funded and well-known incumbents. (Kennedy, because of his strong name recognition, is the exception here.) For these political aspirants, face-to-face contacts are essential and yet now, largely impossible.
But the biggest challenge for all campaigns is raising money. As one campaign veteran said to me, it’s perhaps the biggest unknown in the new coronavirus world.
Asking for money when people are dying is hard enough. It’s that much more difficult in an environment where unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, creating vast and unmet public needs on every front.
Many campaigns are following the same path as Sanders and fundraising for those affected. Markey and other incumbents are using their voter outreach tools to raise money for charities assisting in the coronavirus response. Bullock, who raised more than $1 million in the first 24 hours after he announced his candidacy, is refusing to ask Montanans for money.
But at some point, campaigns will need to transition back to active fundraising. The fact is, there are many tools to reach voters—even those stuck at home. Moreover, no November election is likely to be decided in April. But raising money is and will remain a constant need. A fundraising appeal recently sent out by the Biden campaign captured the difficult dynamic at play. It began with the words, “It isn’t easy for me to ask you for money today.” The email went on to ask for contributions, even as low as $5.
And while there are online tools to reach voters, until now they’ve always been used in conjunction with in-person field operations. Amy Chapman, a political strategist in Michigan who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in the state, says the loss of personal contact necessitated by social distancing will weigh heavily. It’s long been the view in campaigns, says Chapman, that “person to person” outreach “is the most effective approach” for persuading voters. “If you can’t do that the way you’ve planned to… then how do you do it?” she asked.
With millions of people under stay-at-home orders across the country, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for campaigns to build out their field operations, ramp up voter registration efforts, and design get-out-the-vote strategies.
“There’s going to be a lot of trial and error on what works and what doesn’t,” Chapman predicts, “and people spending money on stuff they probably shouldn’t be spending money on.” There’s no “silver bullet.”
Chapman expects to see more narrowly targeted messaging, particularly in the digital space: “A lot of times digital is seen as merely an amplification of what you have on TV versus being able to directly deliver a message to people.” So digital advertising may not only become a more prominent feature of the 2020 race, we may see a continuation of efforts by campaigns to use the medium as a way to more directly reach a thinner slice of the electorate.
Several people I spoke to said paid television and mail will take on greater significance as well now that potential voters are a homebound captive audience.
With many states moving to mail-in voting, that targeting could become even more direct, Chapman pointed out. Campaigns may know who has and has not voted in an election and can narrow their outreach to just those voters who have not yet returned ballots.
One thing to keep in mind is that if vote by mail becomes a necessity in 2020 — and voters prefer it to in-person voting — it could become the new normal, fundamentally changing the way Americans cast their ballots.
Finally, campaigns may start to learn from some of the so-called resistance groups that sprang up after the 2016 election. A group called “Fems for Dems” in Michigan popularized speed dating with candidates and moved the effort online. It’s not hard to imagine other campaigns co-opting these techniques for their candidates.
Indeed, according to Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant and writer who has worked on numerous Republican presidential campaigns, there might be a silver lining here for campaign professionals. “Everybody saying this will make it so hard on campaigns — I think it will be easier,” he said.
“There is a lot that we do because we don’t know what else to do. A lot of this stuff we do without tools to analyze causality,” he said. Campaigns don’t know with certainty what works and often adhere to outmoded models of how they are supposed to be run — with paid media and door knocking by volunteers. If that goes away, Stevens won’t be disappointed, “Door to door has to change. I don’t think it’s worth much, so if it died, that would be improvement in my book.”
If there’s one certainty, however, it’s that we are entering a world of profound uncertainty. No one knows what the United States will look like when life returns to some form of normalcy — or if it ever will. The political realm is no different. When candidates finally return to the trail, how campaigns are run — and how people vote — may look decidedly different.