Campaign teams across the country have had no other choice but to shift their trajectory this year. Historically, campaigns thrive on conventions, dinners, rallies, fairs, and community meet-and-greets to introduce candidates to voters, but those critical elements to winning elections have become nearly impossible in the era of COVID-19.
With so much at stake — congressional seats, a possible U.S. Senate flip and local officials who work tirelessly to assist members of their community, just to name a few – winning is more important than ever. COVID-19 has presented a whole new array of hurdles each of these campaign teams must jump over to elect their representatives.
“We’re on the brink of a new renaissance in campaigning,” said Faith Allen, press secretary for Kat Cammack, the GOP nominee in the race to replace Republican Rep. Ted Yoho in Florida’s 3rd Congressional District.
Allen said candidates are being forced to get creative with their communication efforts because “campaigns are a lot about relational one-on-one advocacy.”
Cammack’s campaign is implementing ways to best reach Floridians, taking advantage of every platform to communicate with voters.
“The audience is more captive and ready to engage than ever before” Allen said, with the team campaigning on most major mediums including local newspapers, YouTube and Facebook.
Production has gone 100% online for Paul Harrison, a video producer for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
"As a producer, you want to control everything, and there’s a bit of letting this go, " Harrison said. “Things are always shifting and changing. We’re working on things I’ve never imagined working on, like 'It’s safe to vote initiatives.”.
Of course, in a perfect scenario, production would happen in a studio with the whole team coming in to work. Because production has moved online, Harrison said the team is constantly next to their computers. Theoretically, everyone is available at all times.
Online production has proven difficult but not impossible, Harrison said, because “you can’t just walk down the hall and peep in your editors bay and get a sneak peek – everything takes longer.” And that’s difficult in a production schedule, Harrison said, “when you have to deliver things yesterday.”
In Arizona, young adult volunteers have transformed phone banking into a social hour.
“We turned volunteering into a fun activity,” said Julian Wolff. He and his friends volunteer with Mission for Arizona, a joint effort by Arizona Democrats to elect Mark Kelly to the U.S. Senate and other Democrats for the November election.
“We used to exercise together,” Wolff said. “Now we have a phone bank happy hour every Saturday between 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.”
Having campaigned on races before, Wolff bet the cost savings for not having an in-person campaign office are high. He’d like to see campaigns' overall savings at the end of the election season.
In Massachusetts, the battle for an open congressional seat had to evolve. Intern Samantha Womack oversaw fundraising and communications for candidate Natalia Linos, an epidemiologist. Linos led the United Nations Development Programme, and has worked as a Science Advisor to the New York City Health Commissioner during the Ebola epidemic.
That role found Womack managing Zoom rooms, watching debates, taking news clips and putting them on social media. Womack said she’s had the unique experience of working on a campaign across the country.
“In a normal world, I would never be able to meet a team of such hard workers based in Boston since I live in LA,” Womack said, “We don’t have in-person meetings but I feel so close to everyone on the team.”
Womack added that the campaign hosted virtual events similar to the Biden team called “Ask me Anythings,” which was Linos’s way of spending one-on-one time with constituents in the district.
Linos lost to Jake Auchincloss in the Democratic primary on Sept. 1.
Kevin Liao, Biden’s Nevada Communications Director, said his roles on the Biden campaign include engaging with the media, prepping surrogates and developing in-state messaging.
His priority is “trying to reach as many voters as possible” navigating his way through a whirlwind of COVID-era chaos. That means more phone banking than ever before and shifting what would have been in-person events to be online forums.
For example, on National Ice Cream Day, volunteers organized an Ice Cream Social via Zoom where they spoke about ways to help get Biden elected while enjoying a scoop of their favorite ice cream. Supporters gathered again virtually on the final day of the Democratic Convention for an ice cream watch party.
President Trump, on the other hand, has been hosting in-person events on the campaign trail, despite the many warnings health officials and governors have issued against it.
On Sept. 13, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, tweeted a warning: “President Donald Trump is taking reckless and selfish actions that are putting countless lives in danger here in Nevada.”
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign director of communications, rebutted the governor’s tweet, arguing that peaceful gatherings are a First Amendment right.
"In Nevada, it seems the First Amendment only applies to certain expressions of speech.
In June, the governor happily provided guidance to protesters," Murtaugh said. “But now somehow the First Amendment doesn’t apply to people who peacefully gather to hear from the President of the United States.”
Matt Fleming, an Editorial Board member of the Southern California News Group and a former spokesman for the state Republican Party, said that the relationship reporters have with politicians aren’t being formed how they typically would be: in person over coffee at the state Capitol.
“The typical events aren’t going on,” which makes political work that much harder, Fleming said. With no in-person way to introduce oneself, forming new relationships with reporters can be difficult.
Fleming said he isn’t worried about making new connections with reporters, as he knows many already. However, for younger journalists, the pandemic has placed a restriction on how well they are able to cultivate new relationships.
“Whenever I start a communications job, I reach out to all the reporters in the area. This is harder to do online, you have to inject a side of humanity,” said Sam Dorn, campaign communications director for Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, at a recent panel hosted by USC Annenberg. This tactic works for reporters and communication teams who are willing to do whatever it takes to curate relationships in the time of COVID.
That means for the foreseeable future, a coffee date at the nearby joint might turn into a virtual meeting, compliments of the Keurig.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Sam Dorn’s title. He is campaign communications director for Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.