Back in June, I made the case that the total lockdowns in numerous states around the country forced us as consultants to rethink the way that we run field campaigns for the better.
For instance, it allowed our candidates, especially those in rural districts, to spend less time traveling to far-off corners of their districts to meet with the same group of 12 already committed voters that gets together every month to talk local politics.
It allowed our candidates to spend more time virtually meeting the voters where they are — mainly their homes. It allowed candidates to try and utilize newer tech tools like videoconferencing, tele-town halls, and peer-to-peer texting to connect and engage with voters across their districts. In many cases, these were voters who would have never had the chance to meet a candidate simply because they live in an un-walkable precinct, or an area where Democratic turnout is so low that it’s written off from the beginning of the campaign.
As we enter what President-elect Joe Biden is calling a potentially “dark winter” with a new nationwide surge in COVID cases, it remains clear that those candidates who are on the ballot in early 2021 municipal elections across the country are going to be faced with the same challenges that a large share of the 2020 candidates faced. Weighing the options between walking door-to-door and risking exposure at a time when case counts and hospitalizations are reaching all-time highs, or staying home and rethinking the way we campaign for office in this country.
Now, I say this as a local elected official myself, and one with a February primary and April general election. Within the last few weeks, I filed my petitions to run for re-election. The petition gathering process this year was markedly different than it would have been in years past. Instead of taking the opportunity to go out and meet voters I haven’t had the chance to meet yet while asking for their support in signing a petition for me to be on the ballot, I chose to go to only those homes where I already knew folks and could call in advance to see if they were comfortable with me stopping by to ask for a signature.
One thing that is clearer now than it was in June is that this virus isn’t going away anytime soon. The way our elections are held in this country has been forever changed. Look no further than the results on Nov. 3. Some estimates put the total number of mail-in ballots returned in the neighborhood of 65 million.
As a result of the huge surge in early and mail voting due to the pandemic, campaign teams have had to completely shift their timelines. Does it still make sense to go up on TV two weeks out, and have a saturation media buy through Election Day? Or do we need to go up four weeks out and go dark for the last 10 days?
Does it make sense for mail calendars to have the last pieces hitting mailboxes in the waning days of the election, or do we have to shift everything forward a couple of weeks? These decisions weighed heavily on the minds of every media consultant, every mail consultant, and certainly, every finance director who suddenly had two-three fewer weeks to raise the final media buy money for their clients to get collateral out the door earlier to meet the massive early and mail-in votes being cast.
There will be post-mortem upon post-mortem written about the 2020 election and the impact of COVID, and the jury is still out on whether the prognostications I made in June were true or not. But I will echo what I said then: 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.