The presidential campaigns of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both opted to cancel large Election Night rallies that were planned for Tuesday night in Cleveland following a state of emergency declaration from Ohio’s governor. They were the first major campaign events of the 2020 cycle to be canceled due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus.
Leaving aside the implications for the Democratic primary, the cancelations also marked the first step toward what the consulting industry is gaming out as an escalation toward full, regional quarantines — possibly leading up to early voting and even Election Day in November.
“It’s the big question that’s lurking. What do voter turnout and voter engagement look like around the general election if any of us are under quarantine?” asked Ari Trujillo Wesler, co-founder of OpenField, a startup that offers a canvassing app to groups and campaigns on the left.
It’s a question that, more and more, practitioners will have to consider. Globally, the epidemic has already caused major disruptions to sporting events, concerts, education and daily life in hard-hit areas from China to Italy to Washington state. Domestically, even Major League Baseball is now planning for teams not to be able to play games in cities that see major outbreaks.
Undoubtedly, the outbreak will have an impact on campaigning this cycle.
As the number of confirmed cases in the United States broke past 1,000 this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols are warning those in the prime voting demographic, 60 and above, to avoid crowds and practice common sense “social distancing."
“Canvassing will roll back under those circumstances [if COVID-19 continues to spread],” said Wesler, who recalled her work as a field organizer during the 2003 SARS outbreak.
“People had to buckle down on paid canvassing to get in front of the doors,” she said.
Seeing a potential pullback from clients, Wesler said her company is in the process of developing and rolling out new features, like in-app calling, which can be a backup contact method.
“[Vulnerable] folks will come into your office, who would normally canvass, they’ll start doing phones and texts,” she said. “Don’t turn your volunteers away. Turn them into volunteer recruiters for folks who aren’t as vulnerable and who have time on their hands.”
Field is one of the facets of campaigning most exposed to the fallout from the spread of coronavirus. But some consultants in the sector are actually seeing potential in the current environment.
Chris Turner, CEO of GOP firm Stampede Consulting, also predicts that campaigns will have to rely more on paid canvassers to make up for a lower number of volunteers.
“That’s going to increase demand for what we do,” he said.
Asked if staff recruiting and retention has become more difficult as fear of contagion has escalated, Turner said: “Not so far.”
“The truth is that working as a canvasser is actually safer than working in retail or in a restaurant and even in an open floor plan office,” he added. “Because you spend much of your day in your own car, you don’t go to a physical office, you can stand an appropriate distance from your target customer, and you’re much more in control of what you’re exposed to.”
Meanwhile, Turner’s pitch to clients is that there’s an increased chance voters will be home to answer the door for his paid canvassers — raising their contact rates and potentially lowering costs.
“Voters are going to be spending more time at home this year. To us, that means more engaging conversations than ever are going to be possible,” said Turner. “So ironically, I think, for those with the wherewithal to deploy professional field teams, the benefits are going to be outsized this year.”