COVID Impact: Elections
by Lilia Dashevsky
on April 29, 2020
by Lilia Dashevsky
on April 29, 2020
As of April 27th, 15 states have postponed their congressional and presidential primary elections, and one state, New York, has canceled its Democratic primary entirely. This is hardly surprising, given that a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 73% of Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, said that they wouldn’t go to businesses even if they could, and want to postpone lifting stay-at-home restrictions. COVID-19 has already influenced the coming 2020 election and could impact electoral politics for years to come.
We’ve already seen what can go wrong with an in-person primary during the COVID-19 outbreak. Wisconsin—the nation’s first in-person primary amid the national crisis—didn’t see a drop in voter turnout, but 36 voters and poll workers contracted COVID-19 in the process. Despite the Wisconsin Elections Commission providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to county clerks, those who were waiting in line or volunteering at the polls were still at high risk. COVID-19 has morphed political participation from a privilege into a threat to voters’ health and safety. The disease presents an difficult calculus to the average citizen: let their voices be heard at the polls or stay silent, safe and healthy at home.
The problem is that few states are likely to outright cancel their primaries. New York was thrown into an uproar when it cancelled its Democratic Primary and Wisconsin experienced a midnight legal battle between the governor and the state Supreme Court. But dozens of states still need to conduct their primaries and the general election. Right now, it seems as though the only safe option is voting by mail or absentee ballot. That just raises its own issues, given that political operatives across the country have expressed uncertainty and concern over how effectively they can mobilize constituents to vote by mail.
America’s path forward is unclear. Thirty-four states already allow registered voters to request absentee ballots for any reason, which could feasibly include COVID-19. Other battleground states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, are easing requirements for voting by mail. Campaigns across the spectrum are encouraging voters to cast their ballot via mail, including Democratic Senate primary contenders Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff, and Teresa Tomlinson in Georgia, and Senate candidates Martha McSally and Mark Kelly in Arizona. The political class has effectively spoken: voting will go on, regardless of what form it takes.
COVID-19 has changed how campaigns are run at the highest level. Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race via a recorded video. Presumptive Democractic nominee Joe Biden is conducting donor events and fireside chats from his home via Zoom. Even President Trump is no longer hosting large rallies, a tentpole of his 2016 voter engagement strategy. Instead, he is investing his campaign’s war chest into digital marketing. Notably, campaigns aren’t opening up new regional offices or sending volunteers and interns to go door knocking. The status quo of the last 20 years has been undone overnight. All of these changes have shown us what national campaigns could look like until the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
Candidates will likely continue to address their audiences in online rallies and discussions rather than in-person events. As a result, campaigns will work to humanize candidates in the eyes of voters—whether through social media or the press—so the electorate can still identify which candidate they want to have a (virtual) beer with.
Campaign infrastructure will also likely shift. Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign ushered in a new era of hyper-targeted voter data. Now, more than ever, accurate voter data will impact the margin of victory. PACs and party organizations will invest more resources into modernizing and enhancing phone banking and direct mail “get out the vote” operations based on voter patterns and locations. Campaigns will also likely invest more resources into raising the digital profile of their on-the-ground representatives, campaign surrogates, and field organizers, because those individuals will need to be representing the campaign in a different way.
This digital-first shift is likely just a fraction of how the campaign world will change. As COVID-19 continues to impact the economy, donation capabilities and fundraising opportunities are changing. Campaigns are cutting staff and are no longer hiring armies of field representatives. PACs will likely have less funding to work with in the coming cycles, affecting the network of ad buyers and political consultants that earn their living on the election calendar. While the evolution of the political realm is endless, two things remain certain: COVID-19 has forever changed the way voters view their civic duty, and political operatives will have to change campaign models for years to come.
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