Campaigns have spent the last six months figuring out how to get voters to the polls during a pandemic, responding on the fly to the realities of revving up the vote while staying socially distant. In the process, are they defining a new normal for American politics?
At this summer's CampaignTech at Home conference, many speakers pointed out that the coronavirus has accelerated several campaign trends, like the speedy adoption of relational organizing tools and the move to advertising that targets the individual voter rather than channels or demographics. Other changes would have been harder to predict a year ago. How many political professionals would have guessed that campaigning via Zoom would be the default for a Democratic presidential nominee?
Some pandemic fallout will permanently alter the political landscape, but other adaptations will disappear once the virus no longer scares us. If we have a vaccine early next year, off-year candidates and community organizers may be able to go door-to-door in most of the country in 2021. If we don't have a vaccine for another couple of years beyond that, political campaigns will likely be lower on our priority list than stockpiling food, howitzers and zombie-repellant. In the meantime, what changes seem likely to stick around?
A Tolerance for Distance
People across the world have learned to make do with Zoom calls and FaceTime chats instead of in-person conversations. Post-pandemic we may, as a culture, be more tolerant of physical distance in professional relationships.
Many nonprofits already support local-level organizers internationally, and political candidates are long accustomed to working with media consultants and pollsters whose hands they may never shake. Even after personal contact loses the threat of imminent death, many campaigns may hire remote staff or consultants for jobs previously done at headquarters or a field office. Good news for politicos who don't like to relocate.
Likewise, campaigns will find ways to involve stay-at-home activists. If town halls return, but with attendance limited, candidates might take some questions from the room and others via Zoom. When a campaign holds a local event, field organizers might meet with remote supporters via videoconference and bring them to the rally virtually. Someone stuck on the couch can still tweet or post on the campaign's behalf, and staff can provide the ammunition.
Flexible Field Organizing
Of all campaign activities, field organizing depends the most on the details of how the pandemic turns out. If people are afraid to open their doors to strangers for a full year or more, that practice might stick — at least for some. I suspect that organizers will pay attention to understanding and tracking voters' contact preferences, since high-risk people and others still may not want canvassers near their doors until they perceive that the risk is finally gone. At the same time, other voters and volunteers may crave personal contact.
Field organizers will have to be flexible all around, since what they can do on the ground may vary from week to week. If a later coronavirus wave flares up, for example, they might have to pare back in-person organizing literally overnight. Still, flexibility is always part of the job description for field staff. On future campaigns, they'll combine relational organizing, texting, self-organizing toolkits, social-media messages, digital ads, phone calls, video calls, Zoom rooms, chatbots and more to manage teams and connect with the right voters through the right channels or the right people.
A Mixed Media Diet
Media strategists will need a dose of that same flexibility since we don't exactly know what voters will be watching and reading a couple of years from now. Will the pandemic-driven streaming boom continue, or will people burn out on bingeing? Will they be spending as much time on Facebook and Instagram, and if so, will we even be allowed to advertise to them? Will some updated Vine clone or Second Life reincarnation steal voters' hearts, or will they decide to spend their time with actual humans rather than a screen?
I suspect that multi-channel campaigns will become the norm, targeting individual voters regardless of where they point their eyes. Sophisticated campaigns will connect with priority voters through whatever options seem most likely to work.
In this model, field organizing becomes a part of the media mix, with a peer-to-peer text or a canvassing call coming the same day that a voter sees a pre-roll video ad, or gets a postcard in the mail. Integrate the parts, and a supporter might sign up to volunteer via a targeted Facebook ad — if those are still allowed — and immediately get a text from a remote field organizer halfway across the continent.
Changing Political Weather
The biggest post-pandemic change for political campaigns may have less to do with campaign tactics than the broader political climate. Fired-up activists have dominated American politics at least since Howard Dean started raising money from small-dollar donors, and grassroots enthusiasm powered Obama's campaigns, the Tea Party, the Trump surprise, the Resistance, Black Lives Matter and much more. After COVID, what will American voters want, and how loudly will they want it? Let’s hope that they’ll cry out for basic competence for a start, having seen so much of the opposite lately.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2020 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.