Political campaigns

From recording videos in a closet to Zoom meditation, 2020 political campaigns are adapting to the pandemic

President Donald Trump may have avoided masks and distancing during this pandemic campaign year, leading to both his diagnosis of COVID-19 and the spread of the disease in the White House.

But others have figured out how to campaign with reduced risk. This cycle, there is a lot of expertise, technology and ingenuity for everyone.

I study campaign politics, and the book I co-authored for Routledge — “Inside the Caucus Bubble” — includes a careful examination of the campaign practices of the recent presidential nomination contest.

This is 2020, not 1828, when candidates had few paths to the voter beyond in-person contact and little support beyond what the party organization offered.

The cast of American electoral politics figures extends far beyond voters and campaigns and includes vendors, consultants, data brokers, analytics professionals, media consultants and creative teams who all play a role in the realization of a campaign.

Marketing for PhoneBurner, whose slogan is “Political Dialing Made Easy”.

I looked at how campaigns engage voters and motivate volunteers and vendors who offer a range of products and services, from digital fundraisers who test email subject lines to print shops old-fashioned, still producing road signs.

I have found that the candidates, campaigns and vendors they work with have been able to adapt and innovate in the age of COVID-19.

On the heels of active 2018 midterm contests and the recent race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the 2020 general election campaigns are generally well-positioned to compete in this challenging new environment. For some, the flurry of late spring and early summer primaries offered a campaign trial during a pandemic.

Diffusing power

A remote organizing infrastructure was already in place before the pandemic, facilitating communication between staff, volunteers and constituents without any in-person contact.

Virtual phone banks had been around for a few cycles, freeing campaigns from the dependence of a field office or a given space like a law firm’s conference room, where volunteers gathered to make calls. Instead, volunteers – with apps on their cellphones connecting them to lists, scripts and the ability to enter data – can make calls wherever they are.

In 2018, campaigns began to rely on new texting platforms to engage volunteers and voters. Known as peer-to-peer texting, these programs make campaign communications much more like what voters receive from their friends on a daily basis, increasing the likelihood that they will read, respond and engage in the countryside.

Texting is a pillar of ‘relational organizing’, which puts organizing tools directly into the hands of field staff and volunteers. This ostensibly diffuses power within a campaign organization and detaches workers and volunteers from the physical connection and control of the campaign structure.

The Sanders and Buttigieg 2020 campaigns showcased these qualities, with Buttigieg going a step further, introducing a design toolkit that allowed supporters to customize their own digital and traditional campaign products such as t-shirts and billboards. signage.

A screenshot of the Pete Buttigieg Campaign Design Toolkit
Screenshot of Pete Buttigieg’s design toolkit which allowed supporters to customize their own digital and campaign products such as t-shirts and yard signs.

It’s always hard to separate the meaningful impact of tools like these from the hype associated with something new. At a minimum, the same technologies that campaigns have used to distribute labor in an organization fit well in a world where face-to-face is less of an option.

The same goes for an event platform, Mobilize, which helps progressives run events and recruit volunteers. This spring, Mobilize abruptly shifted from its pre-pandemic focus on in-person events to a world of all-virtual events. Since then, Mobilize has added a new feature, sending an automated request to a volunteer to host their own virtual event.

Putting the tools directly into the hands of volunteers has the potential to bring unexpected voices into the campaign. The Mobilize platform lists a Zoom-based “Meditation for Joe and Kamala” event in early October, held in Los Angeles, giving this keynote to activists: “Meditate together for Joe and Kamala. All are welcome, no experience required :)”

Make videos in a closet

Much of the campaign work can be done from home. The jury-rigged home office of Michigan congressional candidate Hillary Scholten features an overturned laundry basket leaning on her clothes dryer. The candidate finds this standing desk setup, with campaign signs in the backdrop, ideal for calling donors — and matching socks at the same time.

For tasks that cannot be done remotely, the obvious solution starts with pandemic safety measures. Mi Familia Vota’s in-person voter registration work came to a halt when the pandemic hit. Now, the Latino voting-focused organization is sending out volunteers, after a temperature check, equipped with bleach wipes, gloves and dozens of pens.

In mid-summer, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, a leading trade publication for political campaign professionals, offered its first “at home” version of its campaign technology conference.

Vendors and consultants at the conference described an ever-changing 2020 political environment heavily influenced by the state of the virus outbreak. Their work, they said, is subject to parameters set by lockdown conditions and state regulations — sometimes changing — regarding ballot access and early voting.

Trump app download page.
Digital apps, like this one for the Trump campaign, are an essential part of running a campaign.

At that time, even elements of the digital landscape that were presumably immune to the pandemic were a moving target. Facebook had just announced an “opt out” feature to opt out of political ads. More recently, Facebook announced it would ban political ads for the week leading up to November 3, joining other prominent social media platforms – Twitter and Google – which have otherwise regulated political advertising.

The combined movements of these three giants undoubtedly affect how campaigns unfold, though other social media avenues to voters remain open.

Those who followed the conference heard about innovations adapted to the current situation. Chris Bachman of SBDigital, a digital media agency, talked about a client locked in her home who needed to produce campaign videos. She recorded voiceovers in her closet, sound-absorbing clothes to sound better on her iPhone.

Not all campaign innovations work well in the age of the pandemic. Digital consultant Cheryl Hori had orchestrated a creative use of Waze, the navigation software, in a pre-pandemic context.

Hori, founder of Pacific Campaign House, placed targeted Election Day ads on Waze that appeared when a car stopped; they made the step to vote, then directed the driver to the nearest polling station. Ads wouldn’t be too helpful in 2020, with fewer people voting in person and more by mail.

Meet voters where they are

Campaign insiders say the pandemic makes candidates’ authenticity all the more important. Ryanne Brown, head of advertising at digital company Do Big Things, explained it this way: “People’s BS counters are on high alert.” The pandemic reinforces the adage that campaigns must “meet voters where they are”.

That can be a literal statement this year. Many of these voters are at home; many use internet platforms that allow advertising.

For political media professionals navigating this world of so-called “overblown” advertising, a pandemic is the perfect opportunity. Campaigns have less competition for ad space (think canceled Summer Olympics and lockdown travel destinations), and viewers have more time to watch streaming content.

Certainly not all campaigns are positioned to – or want to – take advantage of the industry’s high-tech tools and resources. An Iowa legislative candidate’s Zoom mojito fundraiser also involved low-tech aspects: home delivery from a small mint factory – contactless – with a label produced by a home printer, “Vote Sarah Smith for HD76”.

Generally speaking, despite extraordinary circumstances and developments, the conduct of this campaign should feel familiar to the 21st century observer – with just a few tweaks.

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