With election day less than a month away, political campaigns all across the countries are ramping up get out the vote efforts. But this year’s efforts look markedly different from years prior.
Since late March, many campaigns have had to shift away from high school gymnasium rallies to Zoom training sessions due to COVID-19, and from large weekend canvasses to socially distanced phone banks. As a result of COVID-19, everything about the traditional political campaign has been impacted—fundraising, volunteer numbers, messaging, staffing, public opinion and the subjects discussed during voter outreach are just some examples. Races at every level—from the local race for the D.C. City Council At-Large seat to the national presidential campaign—all are having to respond to the pandemic.
Case Study: D.C, City Council At-Large Seat
“As a result of the shutdowns, we have reverted to a virtual/in-person hybrid, with small gatherings in keeping with local guidelines,” Maya Pickering, a Republican candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. City Council, told The Politic on a night where she had two Zoom candidate forums.
Some of her opponents shared similar sentiments about the impact of COVID-19 on their campaigns. Independent candidate Franklin Garcia told The Politic that his campaign is “operating mainly virtual, with limited community outreach.”
And Libertarian candidate Joseph Henchman said that his campaign was participating in a lot of Zoom meetings and filling out many candidate questionnaires.
For all three candidates, a virtual/in-person hybrid campaign has meant more than just using Zoom for phone banking. For the Henchman campaign, socially distanced canvassing has reported higher voter contact rates because “everyone [is] home more than usual.”
Both the Pickering and Garcia campaigns told The Politic that the virtual transition has kept their messaging mostly the same, except now they include discussion on policies that they believe will address the public health, economic, and education crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They believe their messaging has successfully resonated with D.C. voters.
However, Pickering admitted that her fundraising and volunteer numbers had fallen somewhat short of initial goals. Nevertheless, she is proud of her campaign’s “cadre of Ward Coordinators and Precinct Captains in all eight Wards.”
In contrast, the Garcia campaign says it has managed to adapt well, having met fundraising goals through email solicitations and a local public financing program.
Examining the candidates for the D.C. City Council At-Large Seat provides valuable insight as to how voter outreach, messaging, fundraising, and volunteer numbers have all changed under COVID-19. However, their particular race does not follow the general two-horse race model of congressional and presidential races. Moreover, their race contains a crowded field of 24 candidates, with no clear frontrunner and no incumbent for one of the two seats. Elsewhere in America, candidates running against well-established incumbents have been hit even harder by COVID-19 challenges.
Case Study: Challenging an Incumbent in Washington State
In Central Washington, Democrat Doug McKinley is challenging incumbent Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA) in the general election. In an interview with The Spokesmans-Review, he complained that COVID-19 has “made retail campaigning a threat to public safety,” adding that his campaign could no longer hold town halls. However, he sees a silver lining: frequent Zoom calls and teleconferences have made it easier to reach out to voters of every corner of the large district.
In the Republican primary, Sareena Sloot faced financial obstacles in her bid to oust Newhouse as well. In an interview with The Spokesmans-Review, she said that “financing is a touchy subject” because many of her friends and families had less money to donate to her campaign. In addition to not being able to rely on personal allies to stock up her campaign’s warchest, her lack of name recognition in the district made fundraising even more challenging. Sloot had to spend her limited funds sparingly. In her interview, she questioned the potency of traditional campaign purchases such as yard signs, citing decreased road traffic. Thus, she focused campaign purchases in other areas.
Strategic allocation of a campaign’s time, energy, and resources are ubiquitous features in the COVID-19 world. For congressional candidates in Washington, incumbents have also had to manage reduced budgets and decide which Zoom events to attend. In addition to candidates themselves, lower level campaign staffers experience COVID-19 changes in both field and communications work.
On the Ground: Volunteers See COVID-19 Changes Firsthand
Field organizers are the lifeblood of political campaigns. They are the people who directly speak with voters at their homes or other the phone in a typical election cycle. This year, while their mission is the same—get people to vote for their candidate—their day-to-day work has changed.
Alvaro Perpuly ‘23, is a field organizer for the Daniella Levine Cava for Miami-Dade County Mayor campaign in Florida. He told The Politic, “It’s been very different working on a campaign during a pandemic…. [In a normal campaign], it’s a lot of shaking hands, a lot of giving hugs, sharing different moments with people. And now that’s taken away. ”
But given the circumstances, he says he has seen the Cava campaign successfully adapt to COVID-19 challenges.
Now the campaign relies heavily on phone banking, and has started canvassing voters at the door once again. Perpuly said that canvassers are told to remain 10 feet or more away from voters at the door—above CDC guidelines—and asked not to touch door knobs. As of late September, the campaign had 60 active canvassers in the Miami-Dade county area with no positive COVID-19 cases. Perpuly noted that because people are at home more often during the pandemic, door knocking and phone answering rates have gone up significantly from years prior.
Perpuly is not the only lower ranking campaign staff to report some positive results from COVID-19 shifts in strategy. On the communications front, some staffers say their campaign has embraced the power of social media.
Grace Jarell, a communications assistant for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, told The Politic, “Almost everything is done either over Zoom or through email, and social media is becoming more important than ever to spread our message.”
Jarell added that the shift toward technology-based organizing has led the New Hampshire Democratic Party to hire more Generation Z and Millennial staffers, who are more familiar with technology. As a young staffer herself, Jarell is in charge of helping manage social media accounts and supporting elderly volunteers who are struggling to adapt to virtual organizing. She believes that changes in campaign staff and new technologies have been able to successfully address COVID-19 limitations.
Staffers of all stripes have helped their candidates and campaigns stay active in reaching out to voters—whether in-person or virtually. However, races as high stakes as the one for the presidency has staffers making tough decisions about strategy and messaging. At the presidential level, President Donald Trump and his staffers have made the decision to stick with a largely in-person playbook, featuring large in-person rallies, while former Vice President Joe Biden and his staffers have stuck with a virtual model with limited in-person events.
COVID’s Impact on The Presidential Race
On June 20, the Trump campaign held its first in-person since March 2020. Prior to the event, then-campaign manager Brad Parscale boasted that the rally had fielded over one million ticket requests. On the night of the $2.2 million rally, many seats were vacant despite the removal of thousands of social distancing stickers in the 19,000-person area. Many supporters in the crowd were seen to not be wearing a face mask.
Just one week after the Tulsa rally, eight Trump staffers tested positive for COVID-19, prompting all staffers in attendance to quarantine. Later, multiple Secret Service officers were required to do the same. Three weeks after the event, COVID-19 cases soared in Tulsa with nearly 500 cases reported in just two days. When Dr. Bruce Dart, Executive Director of the Tulsa Fire Department was asked by [source] if cases were going up because of the rally, he said there were several large events prior to Trump’s arrival and “I guess we just connect the dots.”
In late September, Trump attended a non-campaign related event to boost Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett in the White House Rose Garden. The event did not have social distancing measures nor did all attendees wear a mask just like the Trump campaign’s large rallies. Multiple attendees and President Trump himself later tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of the event, forcing Trump to stay off the in-person campaign trail for several days.
It is unclear if and when President Trump will hold his next in-person rally for the election. In the meantime, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is continuing to make his case to the American people with a mix of virtual events and some in-person campaign stops with social distancing measures and mask requirements.
For months, the Democratic ticket has mostly virtual rallies and special small Zoom calls with key constituencies. But over the summer, Biden held some small in-person events such as a speech on the economic crisis in the Philadelphia suburbs, which was closed off to most of the public, had seats six feet apart, and required the audience to wear a face mask.
But since then, even the Biden campaign is diversifying its strategy. Top Biden aides told the New York Times in September that they are worried that the former Vice President’s lead in background states may be waning despite favorable national polling. As a result, campaign officials have said that the Democratic ticket will travel to background states more often with CDC guidelines in mind. They expect more direct engagement with voters, speeches, and small round table discussions.
Biden has recently made trips to battleground states such as Wisconsin and Arizona, and is expected to make trips to Pennsylvannia and Michigan in the upcoming weeks.
Political candidates, staffers, volunteers, and voters all understand the importance of the 2020 election. At the national level, voters will decide between Vice President Biden or four more years of President Trump, in addition to which party will control both chambers of Congress. At the local levels, voters will be able to vote in hundreds of close elections. As such, many campaigns have decided that a virtual/in-person hybrid strategy is the best way to engage voters in a safe manner.
For many candidates, these changes are limitations. But there are positive aspects to these changes. The lessons that campaigns learn about the power of digital voter outreach, social media, and technology-savvy staff will make elections more dynamic for years to come.