Politics, a Pandemic, and the Future of Campaigning

Jacob Genualdi, Features Editor

“Political campaign[ing]…without handshakes is, well, weird”. 

This was the way CNN analyst Chris Cillizza described the new world of political campaigning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a year of firsts, campaigns were not immune to the massive changes that rocked the globe. From the death of the politician’s handshake to a decline in the number of supporters at rallies, campaigns have been forced to adapt.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tangibly changed the way political campaigns function, impacting every election from the local to national level. So, exactly how have campaigns adapted this election season, and can we expect these changes in the way we see our elected officials to be a part of the “new normal”? 

Much like changes in schools to adhere to social distancing guidelines, many campaigns made the switch to virtual events in March and April. 

“Campaigners are using online platforms like Zoom to hold fundraisers and town halls,” says CBS’ Reid Wilson. 

These online fundraising events are a stark contrast to traditional in-person fundraisers. However, it appears virtual fundraising may have made contributing to campaigns more accessible, upping the total amounts raised, evidenced by record fundraising numbers  (over $14 billion was raised this election cycle according to the government accountability organization Open Secrets). 

Even one of the most recognizable facets of political campaigning moved online: the debate. While the presidential debates have enjoyed most of the media attention, the real story was told in the hundreds of debates held for local, state, and congressional elections. 

In New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, the Albuquerque Journal partnered with KOAT New Mexico to host a virtual debate between the candidates. Democrat Incumbent Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell “zoomed” in to discuss the pressing issues facing New Mexico. The debate, released in late September 2020, was edited to speed up the process and skip the awkward pauses that plague virtual interactions. Viewers were appreciative of the effort that was made to ensure that they would hear from the candidates, but the lack of a face-to-face standoff did not sit well with many voters. 

Across the country, the virtual debates in September gave way to the more traditional in-person debates (with social distancing), suggesting that in-person debating will not be a casualty of the pandemic. 

Furthermore, as a lesser focus was paid to health guidelines by the general public, some candidates returned to traditional campaigning strategies. 

About 90 people gathered Friday afternoon at the Wild Horse Saloon in Durango to hear [US House Candidate Lauren] Boebert, Rep. Ken Buck and [State House Candidate] Marilyn Harris,” according to The Durango Herald. Republicans, who have generally been more critical of lockdowns and the impacts of current health guidelines, were long expected to resume in-person events. However, Democrats didn’t fully restrict themselves to the virtual arena, either.

“The Democratic Party’s ‘Soul of the Nation’ bus tour began its Colorado leg Thursday in Durango, stopping in Buckley Park, where candidates and party leaders milled with voters and helped hand out items,” reported The Cortez Journal

Evidently, assessed the risks of the current health climate and chose to proceed as normal regardless. Both major parties took steps towards returning campaigns to their pre-COVID practices, putting in place some precautions in accordance with local, state, and federal health guidelines. In-person events like these indicate that not only will campaigning return to normal once the pandemic has subsided.

And while many take issue with the more significant changes in our lives caused by the pandemic, political campaigns recognize a number of advantages. 

According to The Hill, “research by media monitoring firms shows employees working from home consume three hours of additional media and that cable news channels especially are benefitting,” 

Campaigns are hopeful that this increased media viewership will expose the public to additional information about the candidates. Some suggest that this may have even increased voter interest and involvement in politics. And while it is difficult to measure the exact impact of increased media viewership, many credit this involvement with the record turnout of the 2020 elections. 

Now that the election has come and passed, the jury appears to still be out on the question of how successful these differing campaign strategies were in reality. While some blame President Trump’s loss on holding massive rallies that many deemed irresponsible from a health standpoint, some Democrats say their own inaction due to the pandemic cost them many state and local elections.

Florida State Representative Anna Eskami, in an interview with the local radio news station WLRN, argued that Democrat’s lack of a “ground game” cost them in the state. The party had made the decision to suspend all in-person door-knocking initiatives months before Election Day. Eskami blames this decision in particular for Democrats sweeping losses in the state, from the defeat of two Democratic incumbents in Congress to even larger failures in the state legislature, growing Republicans’ majorities in both chambers of the state government. 

In light of these seemingly contradictory messages on the merits and risks of in-person events, like many questions surrounding this election cycle, it appears that a lot more digging and analysis is necessary to find concrete answers.

Thus, it is perhaps too early to decide for certain exactly what aspects of campaigns will persist and which will be yet another victim of the pandemic. Looking forward, regardless of how campaigns look, it is the responsibility of citizens to keep politicians accountable and stay informed. Only through an active electorate can we hope to inspire substantive change and not rely on the campaign promises of politicians.