- Coronavirus pandemic measures such as social distancing have completely changed what political campaigns look like in 2020.
- Campaigns will have to adapt to and embrace the notion of impacting voters via technology
- Campaigns have to come up with meaningful ways to reach voters virtually — not just with Facebook posts or tweets — in order to be successful.
- David Cohen has led winning political and advocacy campaigns for candidates, progressive organizations and Fortune 25 companies.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
No one could have predicted the disruptions that upended the 2020 election this year. For the past several months, health mandates designed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, such as social distancing, have forced campaigns to halt key tactics like door-to-door canvassing and big rallies.
Now, some see a possible return to normal. President Trump resumed in-person rallies with an events in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Mount Rushmore. And the dedication to social distancing is slipping according to recent Gallup polling.
Of course, no one knows what the rest of the year holds. But as a career campaign strategist, I believe one thing that is clear: the innovations that candidates up and down the ballot have adopted over the last several months in response to the pandemic could reshape campaigning for years to come.
That’s because the challenges of campaigning in an era of social distancing are a more intense version of a central problem that call candidates must address, even outside a pandemic — namely, how to generate meaningful digital interaction with voters at scale.
Getting better at meaningfully reaching voters
While social media has become a staple of modern campaigns, simply re-tweeting your favorite candidate or liking a Facebook post does not move the needle. Instead, campaigns must shift online engagement away from political hobbyism and toward meaningful interaction. That is the challenge of the COVID-19 era.
What counts as “meaningful?” Any interaction that shifted your view and made a lasting impression. But some modes of communication last longer than others. If you attended a campaign rally for Obama or Trump, you definitely remember it. You probably remember if a local candidate knocked on your door. You might remember a phone call from a campaign volunteer hoping to talk with you about an important issue. Compare that to typical digital interactions. How many tweets swayed your opinion? How many do you remember from two years ago?
Therein lies the problem for campaigns: how to run an effective campaign during a global pandemic. There are many useful digital tactics out there — texting, digital ads, Zoom meetings and more. But can any of these campaign tactics replace basic human interaction to motivate and persuade voters?
A number of promising experiments are already in progress. If successful, they could upend the modern campaign playbook for years to come, even after candidates start knocking on doors again.
For example: Many candidates across the country are using text messaging to check in on voters and make sure they are safe and healthy at this time. While use of text messaging is not new, candidates are using this technology to take on a new role as community support leaders. Getting a non-political touch like that from a campaign or the candidate themselves might be as long lasting as a door knock.
Candidates have also been using platforms like Zoom to host town halls focused on issues arising from the pandemic. In Texas, state House candidate Elizabeth Beck-Johnson recently hosted a mental health town hall that drew a large number of attendees.
Another candidate in Houston hosted a fundraiser at a drive-in. It included a campaign video followed by the evening’s feature presentation: the movie “Casablanca.”
As digital gatherings are normalized, candidates in geographically large districts can be in more places at once — something former Pete Buttigieg campaign adviser Lis Smith pointed out recently as a strategy for the Biden presidential campaign. Down-ballot candidates may not typically be booking a string of press hits, but they might be booking a string of online house parties focusing on specific regional issues.
These experiments provide an early look at what the future of more meaningful digital engagement with voters could look like. There is, however, added urgency ahead of this year’s election, particularly for down-ballot candidates, whose campaigns have been upended the most by the pandemic.
Candidates in state legislative races, for example, traditionally rely the most on door knocking and direct voter engagement, as they otherwise have limited budgets for paid advertising and typically get little press coverage. This November marks the last election before redistricting in 2021, when state lawmakers will redraw Congressional districts, shaping the balance of power nationally for the next decade.
The stakes could not be higher this year. The candidates that are able to forge meaningful connections with voters in an era of social distancing will not only have a leg up on a potentially new way of campaigning in the years ahead — they’ll also be best positioned to win ahead of the most consequential election in a decade.
Working at the intersection of politics and entrepreneurship, David has led winning political and advocacy campaigns for candidates, progressive organizations and Fortune 25 companies. One of Obama’s first hires in 2007, David led the campaign in the successful Nevada, Connecticut, and Wisconsin primaries, and managed the $50 million general election direct mail program.