What do you do when all the familiar and personal means of reaching voters simply aren’t available? It’s a question, in the midst of the coronavirus, that many people are having a tough time answering.
It’s a familiar greeting I have used for years going door-to-door. Once the voter opens the door I say, “Hi, I’m David Kerr, and I wanted to ask if you’re planning to support….” Sometimes, I’ve done it for myself. More often than not, for others. I have even done door-to-door in Britain. It’s a little different there, though not much. “Hello, my name is David Kerr and I’m canvassing for your Conservative candidate, Andrew McNab, and I just wanted to ask if you’re planning to vote this Thursday.” The British are exceptionally polite, and I have frequently been invited in for cups of tea.
Whether, here, in Britain or for that matter any successful democracy, it’s the way campaigns work and it’s the way candidates win. If you have a good “ground game” you’re usually well placed for election day.
When Barack Obama’s campaign decided that Virginia was winnable for the Democrats in 2008, not that many people thought it was possible. But his campaign had a plan backed up with the resources. The approach was simple, tried and true. They would find pro-Obama voters, record that information, then in the weeks that followed, they would maintain contact with this new voter right up until the election. This also turned out to be a good way to find new activists and volunteers. Arguably this approach, and the data driven, in-person campaigns Virginia Democrats have waged since, is one of the factors that helped turn Virginia into a “blue” state. Nothing beats shoe leather.
Then, of course, there are the rallies, the neighborhood meet-and- greets, visits to county fairs, barbecues for this or that cause, standing in front of shopping centers, talking to the Rotary, chambers of commerce and community association meetings. One of the objectives of a good scheduler is making sure the candidate is always at some kind of get together where they can be seen and meet people.
But, what do you do when you can’t campaign in person anymore and when there aren’t any events to go to? Even local party committees and units can’t have meetings anymore.
Sorting this out hasn’t been easy. Probably because most campaigns are making it up as they go along. In a recent Democratic primary in Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, nothing about the campaigning was familiar. Text messages from supporters — OK, that was already sort of a new outreach mechanism — a few phone calls, a mailer and a number of virtual events. The bottom line is that the number of voters personally contacted was small. Voters would have been forgiven if they didn’t even know there was a primary going on.
Another part of campaigning in a pandemic is polling day. Democratic primaries in the ruby red 1st District don’t draw that many voters anyway, but to say the local precincts were quiet is an understatement. Think about an old western movie with sagebrush blowing down the street. No one out in front and poll workers inside who seemed delighted to see someone. In total, 60,000 voters cast their ballots in that primary, but a large number did it by mail. That’s the world we’re living in for the time being.
For me, politics has always had a fun social side to it. Meeting my friends, going to meetings and fundraisers, making phone calls from a headquarters or hitting the streets as a group and going door-to-door is a lot of fun. Now, that’s all gone. I haven’t seen any of my political friends, many I am close to, for months.
This means this fall, everyone is going to have to adapt and no, I am not enjoying it. It’s not the way I like to campaign. But, that’s just the way it is.
The rallies — and President Donald Trump is beside himself about this — will probably be far fewer. The national conventions, just like Virginia’s Democratic state convention, will likely be semi-online affairs. As well organized as they might be, they just don’t take the place of a real political convention.
Also, voting day, particularly in Virginia, will lack a lot of the hubbub I am used to on Election Day. It could be pretty quiet. No one handing out literature in front, and few if any lines. Indeed, it’s not unlikely that a majority of voters will cast their votes by mail.
I am expecting lots of mailers, TV ads, phone calls, some virtual events, emails and text messages, maybe even a few signs, but otherwise, this may be called the election without people.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.