How the Pandemic Reshaped Election Campaigns—Maybe Forever

Not long after the coronavirus shut down life in most parts of the country, Sarah Crawford’s weekend runs took an unusual turn, as mapped out by her Garmin watch. On April 11, her trail spelled the word HOPE in the middle of downtown Zebulon, North Carolina. The next week, she spelled VOTE in Louisburg, 20 miles away. Her run through the town of Franklinton in May resembled a stick figure waving.

Crawford is also running for North Carolina Senate this fall, and like many candidates around the country, she’s had to get creative during the pandemic. The maps of her routes, which she posted to social media, were a promotion for the “virtual 5K” her campaign held in June. “We are all kind of writing the playbook as we go,” Crawford, a Democrat, says of candidates this election cycle. “There are no retail politics right now. There’s nowhere to go, no doors to knock. And so you have to find ways to do those retail politics through social media and through other creative outlets.”

This week’s Democratic National Convention—which saw Kamala Harris and Joe Biden deliver their acceptance speeches to an empty convention hall, and then turn to giant Zoom screens to receive applause—has served as a high-profile reminder of just how radically the pandemic has reshaped the 2020 campaign. But for candidates across the country, running for local or national office, this has been the reality since March. Politicians have been attempting to raise money, elevate their profiles, and rally supporters all while facing lockdown orders, local outbreaks, and a crippling economic downturn. Many have adjusted by moving their campaigns almost entirely online, accelerating the shift toward digital tools already well underway. But circumstances have also encouraged candidates, especially those like Crawford who are farther down the ballot, to innovate and try new things. Some of these experiments will almost certainly be remembered as Covid-only tools, but many could outlast the virus.

In Normal Times, most campaigns would spend the second quarter of an election year focused on courting large- and small-dollar donors with a gauntlet of in-person events. But in 2020, stay-at-home orders hit just as those were getting underway. Fortunately for candidates, both major parties already had digital infrastructure in place for grassroots fundraising: The Democrats launched ActBlue in 2004, and this cycle expanded the platform to all registered candidates, including presidential, for the first time; Republicans launched their equivalent, WinRed, in 2019.

The Republican National Committee has also more than tripled the size of its email list since 2016, according to a spokesperson. “Thanks to our continued investment in our digital platforms, we have the tools needed to engage with supporters, understand their interests, and expand our audience,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The Democratic National Committee also spent the past few years modernizing its data operation and digital targeting technology, after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Having the tools to reach voters already in place has allowed the organization to meet the moment. “I would say that the fundraising part of the program is the thing that we have changed the least since Covid hit,” says Patrick Stevenson, chief mobilization officer at the DNC.

For the Democratic Party, the hurdle at the outset of the pandemic was not technology, but tone. As the country plunged into a recession and millions of people found themselves suddenly out of work, many campaigns and organizations were unsure whether the digital strategies they had lined up were still a good idea. “We were like, ‘Should we even be fundraising? Is that appropriate to be doing right now?’” says Stevenson. The DNC scaled back fundraising emails and took a more serious tone in the messages it did send. And though political donations did dip early in the crisis, as the gravity of the situation became clear—and increasingly politicized—the money started coming in anyway, Stevenson says. Between April and June, both ActBlue and WinRed have reported raising record amounts of money.

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