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How coronavirus could completely upend the 2020 presidential campaign

From debates with no audience to cancelled rallies, the election is going to look very different, with a steep drop in canvassing and traditional face-to-face contacts and an increased reliance on digital messaging and TV advertising.

How coronavirus could completely upend the 2020 presidential campaign
The podium for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden is set up on stage after his primary night rally at the Cuyahoga Community college Recreation center was cancelled due to the threat posed by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on March 10, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. [Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

In recent weeks, the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus has become a major issue in the presidential campaign, with both Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders criticizing the president’s initial attempts to minimize the severity of the virus.

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And increasingly, the pandemic is having an actual impact on the mechanics of the presidential race itself and the way that the campaigns are being conducted—from cancellations of rallies and the structure of debates to concerns about reduced turnout at the polls and proposals to widen the availability of voting by mail—throwing uncertainty into an election that is already expected to be tumultuous. (Some have even proposed cancelling the campaign in the face of the crisis.)

Both Sanders and Biden cancelled campaign events on primary night Tuesday due to coronavirus concerns. And though Trump has been downplaying (and misstating) the coronavirus threat, his reelection campaign team decided not to hold a rally on the night of the Michigan primary, as it has done repeatedly to draw attention away from the Democrats who want to take his job—and the campaign has no such events scheduled for future primary states.

Even the party conventions could be upended, with Democratic party officials reportedly planning for the possibility that their July convention—which at least 50,000 delegates and members of the public are expected to attend—may be cancelled, requiring them to consider remote voting for delegates.

Even debates are changing. CNN has decided to go forward with its scheduled March 15 debate, but without a studio audience, spin room, and press filing center.

If the growth of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. continues at its current rate of a 33% increase per day, the country could be facing an outbreak that rivals those in China and Italy within two weeks. In such an environment, political campaigning might disappear from public view. The yard signs would remain, but the door-to-door canvassing and public events might largely stop. It could seriously change the complexion of the remainder of the primaries and the general election.

Campaign volunteers might become more and more reluctant to do traditional canvassing in neighborhoods and stand on porches to talk to strangers who may or may not be sick. And voters are just as likely to be hesitant to open the door to them.

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The lack of public events hurts campaigns because they’re a tried-and-true way to get “earned” media at no extra cost, when local or national news outlets cover them. During the 2016 election, Trump’s rallies are estimated to have won him hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earned media, which was especially useful during the early days of the primary when his campaign wasn’t as well-resourced as his rivals.

As a result, campaigns will likely become more reliant on digital channels and television advertising to reach voters, says campaign consultant and epolitics.com editor Colin Delany. “It puts a premium on technologies that can help campaigns reach voters when they can’t reach them in person,” he says, predicting an increasing reliance on digital ads, social media, and text messaging.

The campaigns are already spending far more on TV ads than on other kinds of communications, and that’s not likely to change if the coronavirus turns into a nationwide public health emergency in the next few weeks.

But spending on digital outreach could accelerate. And that may be partly due to higher ad prices in a sellers’ market. Prices of digital advertising like Facebook ads may go up, as well as programmatic banner ads and video ads, like pre-roll video ads on Hulu, Delany said.

“It may also put a premium on supporters’ own personal outreach on social media,” he said. Campaigns may encourage their supporters to send a group email to their contacts containing a piece of content the campaign wants to share. This might also be done through a Facebook Group.

Instead of door knocks, phone banking might be the next best thing for getting into real conversations with voters. But not just any phone banks. Delany said that campaigns might start using digital phone bank platforms more frequently, since they enable volunteers to make voter calls from their own phones at home without having to go to a call center.

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Phone calls are problematic, however, because most people have switched to cellphones and don’t usually pick up calls from strange numbers due to the flood of robocalls in recent years (some of it from political campaigns). That’s why campaigns have begun relying heavily on P2P text messaging platforms like Hustle and RumbleUp, which let volunteers send cold texts to the cellphones of voters, asking them to donate to—or volunteer for—the campaign.

“If coronavirus continues to spread, we will see a depressing reduction in ‘retail’ campaign tactics like door-to-door canvassing, community rallies, and operating campaign offices on Main Street,” says Hustle’s cofounder Roddy Lindsay. “Unfortunately, this will happen at a time when Americans will be increasingly isolated at home and craving social interaction and information . . .”

The ground games of campaigns have proven vital to winning elections, especially in close races where it’s vital to engage potential voters early, keep in touch with them, and finally make sure they get out to vote on the big day. But getting people out to vote this year may be doubly complicated as more voters take up self-isolating tactics, as advised by public health authorities.

Voters may be afraid to come to a crowded polling station for fear of catching the virus. Election officials might not show up for the same reason. That already happened in California on Super Tuesday, when as many as 15 temporary election clerks stayed home, reports the Sacramento Bee. If this happened on a larger scale, it could result in longer lines at the polls and the risk that high numbers of voters will walk away without voting. It also might increase the risk that voting results would be inaccurately tabulated or reported.

Coronavirus might also provide a golden opportunity for people who wish to use misinformation to suppress voter turnout. That was a key tactic used by both the Russian GRU and the Trump campaign to try to suppress the votes of African Americans in the 2016 election. In 2020, propagandists may use social media or other means to exaggerate the dangers of catching the virus at polling places, causing large numbers of voters to stay home. There’s already precedent for this. In the recent parliamentary election in Iran, turnout plummeted by 42%, the lowest since 1979. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attributed the low turnout to “negative propaganda” related to coronavirus. In the U.S., about 43% of the voting age population do not vote.

On Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed a bill that would allocate $500 million in federal funding to help states prepare for the possibility of widespread election disruptions caused by coronavirus. The bill also proposes giving all Americans the opportunity to vote by mail in the case of a national emergency.

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Of course it’s still unclear how coronavirus is going to develop in the U.S., and it’s likely that with vigorous government action and Americans’ precautionary measures, the impact of the virus on campaigning may not last long. For now at least, the coronavirus only adds to a growing list of things to feel anxious about as the November election approaches, including election system security, the effects of misinformation, and possible challenges to the legitimacy of election results after the fact.

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