Campaigning In A Pandemic: The New Normal
J. Bowen '21, Contributing
It goes without saying that coronavirus has completely upended American life. In addition to the immeasurable loss of life, historic unemployment, and social disruption, even the most commonplace activities have been disrupted: among these are political campaigns. COVID-19 has challenged traditional campaign strategy, forcing politicians to turn to creative solutions in order to remain competitive. With canvassing, rallies, and fundraisers cancelled, the world of campaigning has been completely reshaped by the pandemic.
My personal experiences of campaigning during coronavirus began with the cancellation of Hamilton’s Semester in Washington. Suddenly home for the summer in March and out of a job, I decided to reach out to a campaign in my hometown and see if they needed any remote help, framing my skills and newfound availability as the ideal candidate for an intern. To my surprise, I heard back from the campaign a few days later with a full-time job offer in finance. With no other plans for the foreseeable future, I accepted, completely unaware of the challenge that awaited me.
Campaign finance was never something I imagined myself doing. I have never been able to ask people for money - my parents reminded me of how terrified I was to sell Girl Scout cookies, a venture far less polarizing than politics. Convincing people to give your campaign their hard-earned money is arduous in any year, let alone during a pandemic. With unemployment approaching 30% and many unsure of their businesses’ future, people are not exactly inclined to donate. So, to adapt to unprecedented times, campaigns are turning to unprecedented strategies.
Typically, campaigns would be heating up in the spring with outdoor fundraisers and events, especially after Memorial Day. In my area especially, tourists visiting the less-populated vacation areas account for a large portion of summer funds amassed by Democratic campaigns. However, with movement and gatherings restricted due to coronavirus, candidates have been forced to go virtual. Our campaign has been offering Zoom events as well as conversations with small groups so that they can learn more about the candidate. Most county party organizations are still conducting regular meetings online, and candidates usually will join and speak for a few minutes just as they might in normal times.
Because a candidate is not forced to spend their time in the car going to events, more and more resources have been dedicated to call time, the hours of the week in which the candidate gets on the phone with donors and asks them to contribute to their run. Before coronavirus, call time would comprise of whatever precious few hours the candidate has between events. Some campaigns conduct call-time sessions while the candidate is en route to a function: one person drives, the candidate makes calls, and the call time manager feeds the candidate relevant information and takes notes on the call. However, the lack of cellular service in our district makes this impossible. Therefore, to accommodate for other missed fundraising opportunities, we have been dedicating the majority of business hours to call time.
In addition to raising funds, increased call time allows voters to connect with a candidate one-on-one in a way that might not otherwise have been possible under different circumstances. Talking to so many people each day also keeps the candidate looped in on issues from all corners of the district, instead of the news from whatever city they may have been visiting that day. It also provides personal anecdotes that update the candidate on topics that might not be covered in the local press.
However, these adaptations are not to say that coronavirus does not impose serious restrictions on the normal functions of a campaign. First quarter financial reports were less than stellar for most campaigns, and as we advance into the summer, losses in tourism may bring any residual momentum from earlier in the year to a screeching halt. For our district, infrastructure will be the biggest determining factor. There are counties in the district in which the majority of households do not have access to broadband, and as previously mentioned, cell service can be hard to come by. In these areas, word of mouth, regular social meetings, and the postal service are the primary means of sharing information. With two of these options off the table (and the postal service under attack), campaigns must reevaluate how to effectively target their messaging. Exactly how this will be executed remains to be determined, but it will likely be expensive, and without regular funding, incredibly challenging. The biggest source of hope for campaigns is that what may be lacking in funds is being made up for in enthusiasm.
In the age of COVID-19, the decisions that our politicians make will literally result in life or death for Americans. While this has almost always been the case, citizens who may have once been protected from seeing their government in such a black-and-white terms are now forced to confront this reality. Despite Donald Trump’s disparagement of expansions of absentee ballots and voting by mail, average voters are more anxious than ever to make their voices heard. I expect to see a rejection of the status quo on a scale that might not rival normal times, but will nonetheless be significant given the barriers voters are facing during the pandemic. Working on the (virtual) ground, I have heard again and again how people feel that now, more than ever, the decisions they make at the ballot will affect their lives. In one form or another, there will still be elections in 2020. Let us not be so distracted by fundraising obstacles that we underestimate the dedication of everyday Americans, essential workers, and those who mourn their loved ones during this crisis. Whatever November brings, the coronavirus pandemic will reshape how we campaign forever.