Before the pandemic, many political professionals operated on the hard calculus of dollars-for-door-knocks and voter IDs.
It was so ingrained, we’d lost some of what used to make campaigns and parties attractive to voters — a feeling that the party and its candidates cared about the individual voter and were there to help them. Elections and those running in them were about service, not besting the other side for the sake of it.
In the great pause resulting from COVID-19, we have an opportunity to get back to those roots.
Now’s the time to flip the script with a simple check-in. I’m proposing campaigns scrap their focus-grouped, market-tested slogans and simply go with: "How can I help you?”
Idealistically, it's a call to recapture our humanity. But right now, it’s also good business to build a kinder, gentler brand.
The power of political parties in America has been in decline for over a century. Mostly gone are the days when the rich elite met in smoke-filled back rooms to decide party nominees for elected office and to dole out plum positions.
In the next presidential cycle, it's entirely likely that the Democratic Party will move to outright abolish state caucuses, thus removing the last vestige of large-scale party control over nominees.
And with this loss of political clout, the parties will have finally surrendered something truly valuable — a tangible explanation to the average voter as to why they should offer their support.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not bemoaning the loss of oligarchical control. The U.S. political system should absolutely not revert to a state of pre-Pendleton Act patronage or citizens relying on Tammany Hall to put out their fires.
But the thing that's been lost with the waning of party control over nominees is the tangible exchange of trust between voter and party: you give us your vote, and in exchange, we promise to deliver you something in return.
Today, both parties demand loyalty from voters, and with gridlock in Congress and state legislatures, those parties are almost never able to make good on their part of the agreement.
But now, political parties have a chance to recapture the notion that they’re valuable, that they provide a service to their voters. Now more than ever, Americans are in need of simple wellbeing check-ins and referrals to essential services.
Every year, more than 100 million Americans leave $80 billion in federal benefits unclaimed. Here’s where parties can step in to help. State and county parties should try phone banking with this line in the script: “Do you need help figuring out what benefits you have access to?”
Or create a mail piece that centers on how opioid addiction is ravaging the middle of the country. “Can I refer you to a local center for addiction help?”
Voters are constantly having their voting days moved and now have to vote from home. Vote by mail will be new to many citizens. Blast the party email list with the copy: “Let me help walk you through the absentee ballot process.”
The mental health of Americans is in decline, forced to stay home 24/7 while balancing work with homeschooling children. A P2P text message could read: “Are you OK? How can I help?”
A little check-in can go a long way.
In a time of pandemic, parties and campaigns have a unique opportunity to re-forge that fundamental promise with voters. And with that comes the benefits of rebuilding trust and cementing a new brand. It’s time to flip the script by starting off the next canvass or phone call not with, “who do you plan to vote for?" But rather, “What can I do to help you?"
Dave Leichtman is the Vice-chair for Technology and Communications of Democratic Party of Virginia.