Less travel, more Zoom: Some COVID-19 campaign changes may endure

Political operatives say popularity of digital events will endure post-pandemic

Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton conducts a Zoom meeting with local nurses from her home in Leesburg in March. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton conducts a Zoom meeting with local nurses from her home in Leesburg in March. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 9, 2020 at 6:00am

COVID-19 upended campaigning as we knew it: Candidates, realizing it was taboo to cuddle babies or shake hands during a pandemic, moved to Zoom events to woo voters. Donors shifted from mingling at the hors d’oeuvres buffet to scarfing down takeout and sipping cocktails in front of their screens. 

One candidate in a Michigan district stopped traditional campaigning altogether and began dropping off groceries to would-be constituents instead. 

The food deliveries lasted only three months, but other changes that campaigns adopted because of the coronavirus crisis may endure long after the pandemic subsides, political operatives say. And they extend beyond elbow bumps. 

The rapid explosion in digital donating and get-out-the-vote efforts will likely remain, particularly among Democratic candidates, even as the party examines whether its reluctance to canvass during the pandemic may have cost votes. 

The ease of traversing the country from the comforts of home will be hard to give up entirely, even though candidates and consultants from both parties say they do still crave and will again embrace the in-person, human interaction of retail politics on the trail. 

“I do think we’re going to see some lasting change,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, noting the rapid uptick in digital organizing efforts. 

“Particularly for our Senate and House candidates, they spend a huge amount of time traveling for fundraising,” she added. “And I’m hoping that maybe, maybe, we can decrease the travel that’s hard on people.”

Schriock noted that Democratic candidates raised record-breaking amounts for their political campaigns virtually and “hopefully we keep at least some of the fundraising” in cyberspace.  

Doug Heye, a campaign operative and former Republican congressional leadership staffer, said he too expects this year’s pandemic changes to transform campaigns permanently. 

“You go through a crisis like this, it changes how campaigns, how businesses, how people do things,” he said. “We will see that in ways that we’re starting to understand and in ways we don’t yet understand.”

Zoom is the new reality, Heye said, especially for celebrity events that have taken off while Hollywood stars and A-list rockers have, just like the rest of us, been mostly confined to their homes. 

Heye said he found the celebrity focus of campaign events in 2016 for Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort to be too many famous people in your face. But fast-forward to 2020, and online events can microtarget only specific fans — and not intrude on anyone else. “Seinfeld” cast members held a reunion to raise money for Texas Democrats, for example, while the stars of “Happy Days” gathered for a virtual reunion to raise money for Wisconsin Democrats. 

“These events were very smartly and strategically targeted to audiences with messaging but also to raise money,” Heye said. “That’s one of the permanent changes that I think we’re going to see.” 

Bring on the hand sanitizer 

Peter Meijer, the Republican member-elect in Michigan’s 3rd District, transformed his campaign this spring into a food delivery service dubbed Operation FRED. That stood for Food Relief Emergency Delivery, but it also was a nod to the candidate’s grandfather, Frederik Meijer, who founded the Meijer supermarket chain. It was one of the more unusual campaign changes, but Meijer’s political director, Noah Sadlier, said it reminded the team that running for office is, at heart, community service. 

“Delivering thousands of meals to folks was a profound and eye-opening experience for me,” Sadlier said recently. “It reminded me really what great and steep issues we have to solve in this country.”

By June, the Meijer campaign was back to politics with many virtual events, phone calls and, ultimately, face-to-face interactions. They even took to handing out campaign-branded hand sanitizers, Sadlier said.  

GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, who had a mild case of COVID-19 this summer, prevailed in what was considered a tough race in Illinois’ 13th District. He said his campaign knocked on more doors, even amid the pandemic, than it had in previous races. 

“We had a better ground game than we’ve ever had,” he said, though his operation also raised more money online, something he expects will continue.

Tim Phillips, president of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, crisscrossed the country in real life starting in June. He and his team of staffers and volunteers canvassed in Montana and other battlegrounds where Republicans won pivotal Senate races. He said the group found a receptive audience of potential swing voters, people who opened their doors even in the pandemic.  

Along with making more virtual connections with voters, campaigns also went a little old school and launched postcard-writing efforts that likely will endure, Phillips said. But he said the decision by many campaigns to shun in-person rallies would likely be reversed when it’s safe again to gather.

“There’s something about the energy or synergy that occurs when like-minded people rally,” he said. “It increases their passion and helps recruit volunteers.” 

No matter what, though, Phillips said the uptick in online organizing and advertising, propelled by the pandemic, will carry on.  

See you online

Tonya Saunders, a longtime lobbyist and Democratic strategist, said the virtual connections, in people’s personal and professional lives, have taken off to the point that despite some Zoom fatigue, it’s hard to see the video calls going away. 

“I’m not saying the glad-handing will go away if we ever get back to being able to touch someone’s hands again, but this is probably going to stay,” she said.

Mel Ulle, a Democratic fundraiser and CEO of Philanthropy Expert, said the stepped-up use of text messaging has become not only more prolific during the pandemic but also more customized as campaigns sought ways of targeting would-be voters. 

“There will be some major shifts in the way that we do political organizing and fundraising in a post-pandemic world,” she said. “The modernization of the virtual event has many fundraisers saying, ‘Let’s never go back.’ The work and organizing and security that major in-person events require has always been extraordinarily taxing on staffers. Yes, in-person events will come back, but virtual events will have a much greater role in future campaigns.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.