I’ve been writing field plans for campaigns for the better part of a decade. It was the one part of campaigns that I thought for sure would never change — technologically speaking. You can never beat the pressing of the flesh, the working of a rope line, and meeting voters on their front stoops and porches.
But shortly before the Illinois primary in March, I noticed a change. While managing a state representative campaign just outside Chicago, I witnessed how volunteers suddenly wanted no part of knocking doors or standing outside polling places. Our field operation crumbled. We had officially entered a new normal in retail politics and I was just learning how to adapt.
Fast forward three months past the onset of COVID and the total shutdown of most of our country. Now, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as a nation and we, as consultants, have had to adapt to our new normal. As a lifelong field operative, COVID has reshaped my thinking of campaigns — for the better.
Our firm works with candidates running up and down the ballot, from coast-to-coast. I recently told a congressional candidate we work with, “This new COVID environment has been a blessing in disguise for campaigns.”
Why? Well, for candidates in exurban and rural districts, regardless of the office they’re seeking, the reality of campaigning post-COVID is one that quite frankly has the potential to create a higher return on investment.
Pre-COVID, if you were a candidate for state representative in a rural district, your evenings would be filled with long drives across the district to go meet with the five members of a local county Democratic organization, or to attend the candidate forum attended by just a handful of voters — all of which had already made up their minds.
Candidates running in rural America often have to weigh the payoff of taking an evening to attend an event with an audience of a dozen people they’ve met multiple times before, but yet still feel obligated to attend, or skipping these hyper-local events and continuing to knock doors. The new COVID environment has removed that entire quandary from field campaigns.
Given the current environment, the cancelation of all in-person party meetings, and caucuses, rural candidates have been able to reach more prospective voters than ever before. No longer do candidates have to choose between reaching out to voters or going to their local Democratic organization meeting that will be attended by the same small group of die-hards.
The pandemic has created a new generation of retail politics. There’s no more in-person handshaking and baby-kissing. What’s replaced it is the opportunity for candidates to spend their time meeting voters where they are through the phone, texting, or other virtual means.
No longer do they have to set aside an hour after work to knock a precinct close to home so that they can get to the local county party meeting that evening. Candidates can spend multiple hours calling voters and reaching across the entire district, oftentimes to voters who they would have never met because they live in unknockable precincts or precincts that they’d already written off based on previous results.
Candidates no longer feel obligated to attend the oftentimes echo-chamber local party meetings when their time would be much better spent talking to voters who don’t follow the inside baseball of local party politics.
Our country has gone through some very hard times over the last three months. Campaign consultants of every stripe have tried to adapt, overcome, and continue to campaign as we head into a critical election. COVID has changed every aspect of campaigning, and those that refuse to adapt are in danger of being left behind.
JR Patton is co-founding partner of the Democratic consulting firm 1833 Group.