Retail politicking a 'new frontier' in time of pandemic

In this world, turned upside down by invisible contagion, the fundamental process of running for political office has been drastically altered by pandemic. 

“It’s hard for campaigns and candidates to adjust to this new reality. The old ideas about organizing and face-to-face contact with voters at the front door are just harder to pull off these days,” said Keir Murray, a Houston based Democratic consultant.

A well-known veteran of dozens of campaigns, Keir Murray says tactics are in transition by necessity, with an emphasis on digital.

“You’ve got more people at home for more amount of time than ever, so eyes on screens are increased during this time. The problem with that, from campaign perspective, it’s also the most expensive way to reach voters,” said Murray.

And for many candidates that’s a problem, because the economic uncertainty triggered by COVID-19 has kept many would-be-political donors from pulling out their check books.

“The donors are having a hard time too in their business. That is something we will have to see, in time, how that comes around and campaigns change, from that perspective, as to how much money is available to be spent,” said Jessica Colon, a veteran Republican consultant also based in Houston.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says the reduction in “shoe leather” campaigning gives an enormous advantage to better known, better funded incumbents.

“Some of the traditional methods such as church services, going to organization group meetings, doing block walking to people who you know are likely voters, those are out, so you’re having to look at new things such as social media, Facebook ads, digital ads and direct mail,” said Jones.

 “We are seeing that, especially with this July 14th primary, where if you weren’t already well known or had a lot of money, it’s really hard to reach the people you need to reach to win,” added Jones.

Left with little choice, candidates are adapting and finding voters to engage anywhere they can.

“I’m starting to see candidates show up in chat rooms, starting to show up in comment threads to get their name out there.

At this point in time, you might not be hitting seven or eight or ten events a day. Maybe you are hitting three or four Zooms in this interim time and we will have to see how things change as it opens up,” said Colon.

“In the short term absolutely you are going to have to coach candidates a lot more on focusing on their digital appearance and profile, the way they approach voters from that standpoint as opposed to working a room in a traditional sense,” said Murray.

 And with the pandemic generating unprecedented restrictions and distractions, campaigns are literally writing new political playbooks on the fly, which means, we won’t really know what works and what doesn’t until November.