How the Pandemic Reshaped Election Campaigns—Maybe Forever

The budgets may be changing, but the platforms will be familiar to anyone who has followed politics this decade. “2008 was the Facebook election, 2012 was the Facebook election, 2016 was the Facebook election, and 2020 will be the Facebook election,” says Moffatt. “It’s because it has audience—it has reach and it has scale.”

Field operations—like door knocking, canvassing, and meet and greets—haven’t had the luxury of building on existing strategies. In a time of social distancing, candidates have had to completely rethink how to connect with voters. Some organizers have embraced the challenge. “The best art comes from having boundaries,” says Amanda Litman, the cofounder of Run For Something, which supports and recruits young candidates. “The best campaign tactics come from navigating a new structure.” Run For Something has been collecting ideas on Airtable, which is available online for any candidate looking for inspiration. Some examples include a “Quaren-stream” interactive gathering and a virtual dog walk held via Facebook Live. “What candidates are trying to do right now is re-create the emotional connection,” Litman says. “And you can do that over the phone, text, Facebook message, Zoom.”

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“Most of the innovation usually happens at the presidential level and then four years later kind of trickles down to everyone else,” Moffatt notes. This year, he says, the innovation is coming from the down-ballot campaigns, whose staffs tend to skew younger. “I think the top-tier ones were always innovating, because they had the resources, whereas the lower ones maybe didn’t prioritize it, because there was always something else. But in the age of Covid, when you’re homebound, digital is going to be your force multiplier.”

The nature of this election cycle will favor different kinds of candidates than before, says Adam Bonica, a political scientist at Stanford University. “I would expect a trend toward the types of candidates who are more successful with these online mass-media-type strategies, who tend to be younger and who are better at activating online communities,” he says, pointing to the primary success of candidates like Cori Bush in St. Louis. “If you’re a traditional pressing-flesh fundraiser, your strategies are completely upended.”

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine constituents feeling completely satisfied with virtual-only campaigning when in-person becomes viable again. Bonica predicts that the campaign trail will closely mirror the trajectory of many corporate offices in the US: everyone who can is working remotely out of necessity, but eventually some of those people will begin going back. But it’s unlikely everything will return to a pre-Covid standard.

Election fundraising and advertising have been moving online for years, and many candidates found success streaming policy discussions from their living rooms long before a pandemic forced them to stay home. But the temporary restrictions have forced candidates to adopt digital tools they otherwise might not have, and get creative to engage donors and voters online. That experience will likely have a lasting impact.

“In four years, all these people who wouldn’t have adopted these techniques for another four years now know them today,” Moffatt says, “so they’re going to be that much better as they go forward.” As for this cycle, he adds, the Covid election will reveal “who’s really taking their future into their own hands and moving forward versus who will be dragged kicking and screaming.”

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