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U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey campaigns in Iowa over Memorial Day Weekend 2019. Photo courtesy of the Booker campaign.

In-person campaigning? Fuggedaboutit!

Coronavirus pandemic will change how local campaigns are run, at least through the June primary

By David Wildstein, March 19 2020 10:38 am


Political campaigning — especially for local candidates — is about to become exceedingly difficult in the coming week, a reality that will likely boost the chances of incumbents with higher name recognition, party support, and more money.

The New Jersey Globe has spoken to more than fifty candidates, party leaders, political operatives and veteran strategists to get a gauge on what the effect of social distancing will be on upcoming elections, including the June primary.

For candidates to overcome the clear obstacles of pandemic-era local campaigning, they will need to quickly accept the realities of how COVID-19 effects their bid for public office.

* Door-to-door campaigning is over.  Voters will rapidly become less likely to open their doors and stand face to face with candidates.

* Canvassers are no longer a viable campaign tactic.  This is especially detrimental to campaigns that have been built on a strong volunteer foundation.  Boots on the ground will have a limited impact if New Jerseyans follow social distancing guidelines.

It’s also not clear whether labor unions, which often provide critical bodies to turn out votes in the days leading up to an election, will play heavily in GOTV efforts in the short-term.

* Forget about in-person campaigning because everything is canceled.  No more Boy Scout award dinners, Little League opening day ceremonies, or senior citizen lunches – places that typically gave candidates access to large groups of voters at one time. Standing outside supermarkets handing out palm cards won’t work right now.

People won’t attend rallies.   There will be no house parties, candidates forums or debates, at least for the foreseeable future.  The only replacement will be virtual events.  Handshaking is a thing of the past. Kissing babies hasn’t really been a thing for decades.

* Direct Mail will be a challenge as printers and mail shops both get busy – and potentially slow down as their own employees practice social distancing.  The U.S. Postal Service has not announced any reductions in service, but that’s possible.

For lower-budget campaigns, adding additional direct mail to replace in-person campaigning, drives up the cost of the campaign.  The bigger the electorate, the greater the problem.

* Some volunteer activities, like stuffing envelopes, will be curtailed.  People can sit six feet apart, if they must, but it’s not an optimal situation and will probably dissuade volunteers from spending the time they typically would in the weeks leading into Election Day.  There are similar challenges to the old-fashioned lit drops.  Campaign headquarters’ will either need to shut down, or limit the number of people in the building.

* Digital advertising, especially targeted ads, has been the way to go anyway.  But some strategists expect finding inventory for campaigns might become more challenging in a time when traditional brick-and-mortar businesses are closing, and online retailers are upping their digital ad buys.

* Daily newspapers haven’t been covering most local political campaigns for years and they aren’t about to start now. They are all-virus, all the time –COVID-19 news may the only reason people are reading newspapers or visiting their websites. For non-incumbents, newspaper, TV and radio interviews will be difficult to obtain.

* TV ads are simply out of reach for most local candidates.  It’s not like Nutley Commissioner contenders can suddenly put their cash into New York television.

* Fundraising is going to become extraordinarily more difficult for everyone.  Candidates have already cut back on call-time.  Fundraising events have been cancelled.  Donors are expected to stop giving.

That will be across the board.  Small-dollar contributions will slow down, especially as Americans worry about their next paycheck.  Major donors – especially those facing seven-figure hits to their stock portfolios or looking at major losses in their businesses – will slow down their contributions.

That’s fine for candidates who have stockpiled cash for a rainy day.  For shoe-string budget campaigns, or those who have already burned through their money, it may be impossible to recover.

Candidates who are already longshots have an even narrower path to victory than before, although the reality is most of them were never going to win anyway.  Those with the support of political party organizations – the ones on the line, as we say in New Jersey – will have an easier time.

* I sat Shiva for Robo Calls last December.  It’s become increasingly more difficult to reach voters by telephone in recent years.  More people might be at home, but they are unlikely to suddenly develop a taste for telemarketers.

* Uncertainties on the date of elections continue. Expect surprises.

How to campaign in a pandemic election

For the foreseeable future, campaigns are going to be all about social media.

That’s not a medium that every candidate fully understands, and it’s not as easy as you think.  Unless you’re ready to pay Pearl Gabel and Megan Coyne a half-million dollars to switch jobs, coming up with effective ways to reach voters online will be a challenge.

Candidates can use Facebook Live and tele-townhalls.  They can host virtual events that offer real information for voters, like public health questions and what to do with your kids home all-day. Voters have serious concerns about their health and financial security that can be addressed through Skype sessions or roundtable calls.

In an instructional memo, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is telling their candidates to “be cognizant of the developing crisis and ‘meet people where they are’ in terms of their messaging, tone, and tactics.

“All conversations and virtual events should start from a place of checking in the health and well-being of those involved, and where appropriate providing resources and guidance for dealing with the health crisis,” the DCCC recommends.

Vote-by-mail is about to explode, and organized VBM efforts are not for the faint of heart.  Campaigns that understand vote-by-mail strategies will have a significant advantage.

A word of warning: many people involved in politics think about campaigns from the time we wake up until we’ve gone to sleep.  For many of us, we’re even thinking about this while we’re sleeping.

That’s not normal, and fortunately, not everybody is like us.  So, while the effect of political campaigns looms large with the 1% who has exceedingly active, most voters aren’t worrying about whether the polls will be open in June.

I spoke with Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz earlier this week and asked what the effect of coronavirus will be on turnout in the April Newark school board election.

“David, of the 5,000 things that are keeping me awake at night, that isn’t one of them,” she said.

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