COVID 19 and the US Elections by Mitchell Polman
This year the United States is having primary and general elections for officeholders from the president all the way down to local officials. The American style of politics has generally remained much the same throughout history — a heavy reliance on citizens meeting each other to give the case for their candidates either in small groups or at large campaign events. While first television and then social media have become important campaign tools, campaign strategists still believe that the personal touch needs to be central to their strategies through door-to-door campaigning, house parties, and campaign rallies. The presidential primary process culminates with a televised party convention in the summer. The conventions are part the formal business of nominating the presidential and vice presidential candidates and part opportunity for the parties and presidential candidates to bring their message to a national audience. There has been considerable discussion as to whether this will now be moved online and how that will effect the campaigns (the Democratic convention has already been moved from July to August). It seems unlikely that the Republican Party will be holding its convention online. The Democratic Party has devised a tentative plan to hold their convention in Milwaukee as planned, but to give delegates the option of participating online.
The pandemic hit during the primary elections process thereby forcing the postponement of several primary elections although the contest for the Democratic Party nomination for president had largely already been decided. Early in the campaign it had been looking as if the “selfie line”, lines of supporters taking turns to take a selfie with the candidate (pioneered by candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren), was going to be the popular campaign tool of the year. Political consultants were quick to offer suggestions to candidates on how to adapt their campaign to the pandemic situation. Campaigns at all levels are being forced to adapt and adapt quickly to strategies for everything from signature gathering, to volunteer recruitment, fundraising, and simply getting their messages out. Messaging is especially challenging as the television news at both the national and local levels are entirely focused on the pandemic. This is an especially difficult environment for candidates who are challenging incumbent politicians who are already well known and are frequently on the news commenting on the crisis.
Strategists are now relying more on what is called “digital relational organizing” — a strategy that involves encouraging supporters to talk to their existing networks about their candidate rather than the traditional approach of recruiting volunteers to spread their candidate’s message to strangers. Mike Pfohl, founder of Empower, a software company that creates relational organizing tools said that, “We’ve found organizations are leveraging relationships to help push out information in a mix of healthcare information around COVID, food banks, and other information about absentee ballot, electoral information, and campaign talking points.”
Digital tools have been playing an important role in enabling campaigns to adapt. The leader in the effort to develop digital campaign tools on the Democratic Party side is Higher Ground Labs, which was founded by two former Obama campaign staffers with funding from wealthy Silicon Valley tech industry figures. HGL funds young tech professionals who are developing digital tools for use by Democratic political campaigns and liberal political movements. Some of those tools are now in greater demand than ever. HGL is planning to soon have a webinar where developers that they support will be demonstrating how their tools can be used during the pandemic as well as to introduce new tools they are developing that campaigns can use during the crisis. Still other digital tools are now actually less useful because they facilitate face-to-face contact. Up until recently such digital tools had been primarily developed and used by Democratic candidates and progressive movements, but the Republicans are increasingly finding ways to use them as well. Some “old-fashioned” strategies, such as those that involve using the postal mail, are now also taking on greater importance.
Social media had been falling out of favor largely because of Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 elections, but the COVID19 pandemic is reviving social media as a tool. One digital communications firm, Outfox AI, works with campaigns in devising effective Facebook and Instagram strategies. President Trump’s campaign in 2016 made heavy use of social media and Trump’s online strategist is now his campaign manager. Trump is eager to start having rallies again and the campaign is concerned that his inability to hold them will harm his campaign. Currently, the Trump campaign is planning to hold some online rallies, but in-person rallies are still on hold. Both parties are encouraging campaigns to use Facebook Live as a tool to have conversations with supporters.
COVID19 has led to an explosion in the number of ways candidates are reaching-out to voters. Al Gross, an independent candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Alaska, can’t travel around his state, which is as large as Mongolia. He has instead done more town hall meetings with groups of voters online as well as giving more interviews to local radio stations.1 In Florida, the Democratic Party has been having “wine downs”, virtual Happy Hours to bring supporters together. The national Democratic Party has been training thousands of “digital organizers” nationally on how to recruit voters and volunteers using social media and other digital tools. A Democratic candidate for Arizona’s state legislature, Kathy Knecht, is offering tech support to elderly voters. Mark Kelly, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate from Arizona, is giving talks on Instagram. As unlikely as it may sound, many politicians have taken to reading bedtime stories to children online or cooking and sharing dinner with their voters online, primarily over Facebook. There have been both positives and negatives to this explosion in the use of online tools. Some candidates feel that it can be easier to talk to voters online without having large numbers of people vying at once to get a question in plus they can talk to people from different parts of their constituencies at once saving them the time and expense of travel. The downside is that many candidates and organizers are finding the task of juggling multiple video calls and online tools to be overwhelming and difficult to organize. In the American context where you have campaigns and parties with national, state, and local chapters as well as civic groups and movements all competing for a candidate’s attention there are bound to be multiple meetings happening at the same time that a candidate should probably be a part of.2
The important business of political fundraising has also had to evolve due to COVID19. The financial difficulties of many voters has led political campaigns and parties to change their fundraising language and curtail their amount of communication in order to demonstrate sensitivity towards voters’ circumstances. To some extent the Republican Party may actually be benefiting from the pandemic with respects to fundraising. Traditionally the Republicans have tended to raise campaign funds by hosting gatherings with small groups of wealthy individuals while the Democratic Party has tended to focus more on raising small amounts of money from a large number of individual voters by mail and online. The pandemic has been forcing the Republicans to become more like the Democrats because they are no longer able to hold the fundraising parties and events that they normally rely on. They have been enjoying some success now in raising funds from people who have not traditionally given to the party’s candidates in the past and have thereby expanded their fundraising network.
One candidate who has faced a special challenge has been Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who is facing a primary challenge on September 1st from Rep. Joe Kennedy III. Markey had only begun to gather signatures to get on the ballot by May 5th figuring that as a well-known incumbent it would be an easy job. COVID19 restrictions created serious problems for his signature gathering effort and the campaign had to resort to both digital and old fashioned tools to gather signatures. Voters could request a petition form to sign from the campaign online that was then mailed to them and then sent back to the campaign. Supporters were also given instructions to leave petitions in public locations secured by a rock. The campaign feels that this has helped their campaign by building firmer connections with their supporters.3 Markey actually got more than double the number of required signatures and will be on the ballot. Many states are lowering the number of signatures required to get on a ballot, which is critical for minor party candidates and citizens initiative groups (or “referendum” as they are commonly called in the U.S.). There are also several legal actions underway to force states to reduce their signature requirements.
Typically, in American elections voter turn-out tends to be lowest amongst young people and minority groups both of whom tend to vote for Democratic candidates. For this reason, in 2018 former First Lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative called “When We All Vote” to encourage more people to vote. During the pandemic they hosted an online “Couch Party 2.0” demonstrating tools they have developed to get people to register to vote. An important part of Democratic Party campaign efforts has always been “Get-Out-The-Vote” campaigns (or “GOTV”), contacting supporters on Election Day and any early voting days to ensure that they have actually voted and offering assistance if they are having difficulties voting. Such contacts usually take place by phone, text, or in person visits from supporters. Due to COVID19, GOTV efforts are having to be completely reshaped to account for the fact that voting by mail is being greatly expanded. Digital developers are now creating tools to make it possible for campaigns to remind their supporters to mail their ballots in and inform them of critical deadlines.
President Trump ran a very nontraditional presidential campaign in 2016. The campaign relied very heavily on the use of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Trump’s digital strategist from that campaign, Brad Parscale, is now his campaign manager. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is not digital savvy and has not invested heavily in digital strategies. Indeed, his campaign has lacked funding and has a small staff. Biden and his staff seem to feel that a digital campaigning doesn’t suit Biden’s personal style. The COVID19 pandemic has given the campaign the time and space to begin developing a digital strategy that best suits their candidate’s style and hire more digital campaign staff. Some digital strategists argue that the campaign does not need to build a large social media presence so long as it creates good content and strategizes well when sharing it. For this reason, Biden has been relying heavily on supporters with large social media presences, such as former President Barack Obama and U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, to help share his posts and videos thereby magnifying his audience. Recently, Biden held a “virtual” campaign rally with supporters in Tampa, Florida, but it was hampered by a number of technical glitches. While this rally was open to supporters anywhere the campaign is planning on making future virtual rallies accessible only to those with passwords. The Biden campaign also had a “Soul of the Nation” rally over its website that was free of technical issues and was more well-received. The rally gave suggestions to supporters on actions that they can take to support Biden while staying at home.
One tool that has grown in popularity due to the COVID19 crisis is Peer to Peer Texting (or “P2P” as it is commonly called). These are apps that enable supporters to send mass text messages to other supporters and even track their activity. They are simple enough for elderly people to use. Messages can be specially personalized to appeal to certain segments of voters. One company, Hustle, markets to Democratic clients, while RumbleUp markets to Republicans. Campaigns are now relying more on P2P to push their messages out to their supporters.
The COVID19 crisis has meant that people are shopping less and the rates for all advertising, including digital advertising, have dropped. That has made it cheaper than ever for political campaigns to use streaming services for campaign advertising than ever. In addition, people are spending more time at home and utilizing such streaming services as Hulu and Roku. Advertising on these services employs the same microtargeting methods as Facebook. Controversy has arisen over this as streaming services are not subject to the same political advertising disclosure laws that television advertisers are required to follow.4 The fall in advertising rates has been especially beneficial to Democratic candidates as anger towards President Trump has led to a large rise in the amount of money that even “downballot” (state and local level) candidates have been able to raise in this election year.
Overall, the current situation of the U.S. political campaign situation is best summed-up by Colin Delaney, editor of epolitics.com , a website devoted to digital political strategy. Delaney feels that the COVID19 crisis has led to an acceleration of trends that were already present in political campaigns — greater use of videocalls, P2P texting, and advertising on digital streaming services, but that no real new trends have emerged. He feels that by the autumn people may very much want more human contact and in-person campaigning will pick-up, but not at levels that we ordinarily see in an election year. At the end of the day, there is no digital substitute for human contact.
1 Pink, Aiden, “Meet the Jewish fisherman from Alaska who could flip the Senate blue,” Forward, April 27, 2020.
2 Scherer, Michael, “Thousands of candidates reinventing politics on the fly for the age of pandemic,” Washington Post, April 26, 2020.
3 McGrane, Victoria, “Ed Markey falling short of signatures deadline,” Boston Globe, April 7, 2020.
4 Rann, Tony, “Political ads are flooding Hulu, Roku and other streaming services, revealing loopholes in federal election laws,” Washington Post, February 20, 2020.