As COVID-19 takes hold and social distancing guidelines are extended for months, it’s not just businesses and schools that are seeing the impact. The virus is interfering with campaigns, up and down the ballot, as we know them.
Outside of Wisconsin, postponing primaries and caucuses has become the norm, and there are heavy rumblings of expanding vote-by-mail and absentee programs.
So, now that campaigns have adjusted to the immediate challenge of moving town halls, fundraisers and voter contact almost entirely online, how should they be planning for the months ahead? Here are some things to watch out for:
Changing media consumption habits.
First, it’s helpful to understand the rapidly shifting media environment. Streaming services are seeing a 26-percent uptick in usage across the board, and that number is even more stark for sports fans — somewhere around 50 percent, according to our research.
This tells us that time that would otherwise be spent watching March Madness or Opening Day through more traditional media is now being spent streaming content. The result? As people move away from TV and toward digital platforms, it creates more ad inventory for a captive audience at lower media costs than we expect to see at any point between now and Election Day.
Changing election rules.
We know from work in California and other states with historically strong vote-by-mail systems that running digital ballot chase programs — and getting them off the ground early — is key to success. Now, thanks to COVID-19, more states are shifting toward expanding vote-by-mail programs, and campaigns in these states should take cues from California.
Our recent polling shows that a majority of voters (57 percent) say they would prefer to vote by mail if their state allowed it, so it’s not a stretch to think that voters will take advantage of this new opportunity should it arise.
And since over 430k mail-in votes were rejected last cycle for arriving late, campaigns have a lot of work to do to educate voters about both the voting rules and their candidate.
Marry this with COVID-19 driving people to spend more and more time online and it’s clear that, in the absence of rallies and in-person campaign events, reaching voters where they are — in this case on their couches, through connected TV, podcasts, digital radio, and social media — is paramount.
Steps campaigns should be taking.
With so many unknowns, the name of the game when it comes to media planning is flexibility.
Plans should be designed to scale up earlier than initially planned to talk to voters who are logging more screen time than ever before, and they should be able to come down or realign quickly in times or areas that are seeing great devastation and advertising is no longer appropriate. Ensuring that out-clauses are in place while securing key inventory before competitors do will be key for both Persuasion and GOTV efforts:
Digital persuasion efforts should be heavied-up and should start earlier – particularly for challengers who won’t benefit from the spotlight of their work in government to combat COVID-19. Introducing a candidate to voters in an environment that tends to produce a “rally around the flag” effect for incumbents means that going up with persuasion eight weeks before the election won’t cut it anymore.
Instead, with COVID-19 currently driving a four-times increase in audio consumption and a 1.5-times increase in video consumption, campaigns should begin introducing candidates to persuadable voters now, while their audience is a captive audience at home. Invest in high-impact options like Hulu or Pandora that are traditionally reserved for the last few weeks. Increase your media on YouTube. Bottom line: start your persuasion efforts now, while voters are eager to hear from you.
Get out the vote (GOTV) efforts aren’t one-size-fits-all; traditionally, early and absentee voters skew older so earlier GOTV pushes should keep in mind that we have a steeper hill to climb with younger and non-white voters.
With longer windows for vote by mail or absentee ballots, GOTV efforts will need to expand well beyond the usual two-three weeks before Election Day to make sure that people understand how to vote – and who to vote for.
Consider launching your GOTV efforts two weeks before the vote-by-mail window opens and be sure to continually update your targeting so as not to waste impressions on people who have already cast ballots.
Adjusting Content to Fit the Times
Launching a persuasion campaign now begs the question as to what content is appropriate to run (and where) as our country navigates an unprecedented pandemic.
Regarding ad placements, every campaign will have its own needs. Generally speaking, if your message has proven to be effective, is sensitive to COVID-19, and bears in mind the realities of your given audience, you may not need to actively hold out your ads from running on stories about the crisis.
As far as content goes, while every campaign will have a different approach depending on how COVID-19 is impacting their state, their own research, and the candidate’s current position, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be mindful of new norms. Not everything you run necessarily has to acknowledge coronavirus. But your content should pay respect to new norms and guidelines from the CDC, WHO, and local officials. This means being wary of spots that feature a lot of handshaking or rallies, and it, of course, means holding off on in-person shoots with large groups of people while social distancing guidelines are in effect.
- Beware of platform restrictions. As of now, Google, and by extension YouTube, is prohibiting all content about coronavirus (including landing pages), and they’re not allowing advertisers to bid on coronavirus-related content. We only expect more restrictions to be put in place. That said, spots like these from Amy McGrath and Sara Gideon are good examples of walking the line of talking about the pandemic, presenting each candidate’s leadership, and staying within advertising guidelines.
- Highlight how your candidate is helping. Incumbents will naturally have talking points about pieces of the stimulus packages they fought for, or how much money they’ve secured for their state. Governors will be able to focus on their own leadership and successful policies they’ve implemented to “flatten the curve” and keep their constituents safe. Challengers, who often are running from a lesser-ranked position, will have to lean into what they’ve done on the local level, how they’ve helped their state from their current position, or offer strong thought leadership.
Jane Hughes is a Director at Bully Pulpit Interactive. She returned to BPI after serving as the Digital Director on Governor Maggie Hassan's successful run for United States Senate in New Hampshire.