Campaigning During COVID

This post is based on the author's live webinar presentation: “Campaigning During COVID, Part I”, as offered by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Download and follow along with the accompanying Power Point presentation. Part II’s webinar will be on Campaign Tactics and presented on Tuesday, April 14th. To participate, register here

It’s April 2020 and all across the world COVID-19 has taken over our everyday way of living and far too many people are getting sick and dying from it. We are experiencing something the majority of us have never seen nor faced before, resulting in major uncertainties and challenges in the election arena for candidates on the ballot in 2020.

While we are all dealing with the uncertainty in how we live our daily lives, as well as when and if our lives will return to normal, candidates for public office are also dealing with “campaign” issues, including the uncertainty of whether or not it’s okay to campaign and the uncertainty about how to actually campaign. Candidates are also facing uncertainty around “election” issues including how voters will be able to cast their votes, and when filing deadlines and elections – both primaries and, possibly, the general – will be held. If it is any consolation, just about all candidates and their opponents are facing these same issues.

The first concerns listed in the previous paragraph – the uncertainty in how we live our daily lives, as well as when and if our lives will return to normal – are the only two that the people you want to serve actually care about. This is very important for candidates to understand, as your future constituents’ concerns are what should drive your campaign strategy.

Is it Okay to Campaign During COVID?
Yes, it is okay campaign as long as you follow “social distancing/stay at home” orders, and any other orders applicable to your district/state. You cannot campaign in the manner we did this past election cycle, but there are still ways to be effective.

Similarly, when is it okay to campaign? Common sense rules the day. If your communities are spiking in numbers of those suffering and dying from COVID and your election isn’t until November, then now is not the time. However, if your primary has not been postponed but rather is imminent, then campaigning – following the law of “social distancing/stay at home” – is acceptable. That does not mean everyone will think it is okay to campaign, and that is why we are having this discussion. Further down in the post when we discuss messaging, we will address how to respond to those who don’t think you should be campaigning.     

Part of the reason it is okay to campaign is because it is during times of uncertainty like these that people look to, and for, leadership. In troubled times, our country has proven over and over again that not only do we come together but we rally together. Elections are foundational to the way our country is run and to our moving forward to better, and healthier, times.

The next obvious campaign questions are whether or not it is okay to fundraise while people are losing their jobs, and possibly their family’s sole source of income, and whether or not negative campaigning is appropriate. Fundraising is acceptable as long as you are respectful of the very hard times some people are going through, while also lowering your expectations of what you will be able to raise since your campaign fundraising is not a priority for others. Negative campaigning is a separate issue all on its own, and unless your election is imminent, now is not the time, and even then, it is probably not the time for negative campaigning. Better to hold that option until after things improve. 

“How to” Campaign
In my thirty years of working on campaigns, nothing, not COVID-19, not September 11th nor anything else, has or will ever change the fact that campaigns are made up of strategy and tactics, and that tactics should never come before strategy. Strategy always drives tactics. In “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu wrote, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” If your strategy is wrong, your tactics are wrong.

Therefore, the first thing to do is regroup and revise your strategy, if necessary. Unless your plan already takes COVID-19 into consideration, that plan will not work. Candidates need to capture what is happening in the political environment. Usually what is happening nationally does not impact local campaigns. However, COVID-19 is opening up whole new conversations, including some involving the authority of states and more. Candidates need to understand the impact COVID is having on their local communities, starting with what is on people’s minds, i.e., life, death, uncertainty, financial concerns, plus much more. Candidates must respect the intensity of what people are going through and what they are feeling, while understanding everyone’s experiences and feelings are different. Candidates need to connect with their voters on what is important to them, demonstrating the candidate’s understanding, care, and willingness to work to help make things better for their communities. Quite simply, “voters do not care what you know until they know that you care.” 

Where to Begin.
Begin by being a leader during these very troubling and uncertain times. It is always the right time to do the right thing. If you are an incumbent elected official, the best thing you can do is do your job. If you are a challenger, try to act like an elected public servant; be a part of the solution and help connect people to services and resources they many need. Start demonstrating your leadership by:

  1. Redefining “why you” and how you are going to be a part of the solution. Yes, you need to talk about COVID and connect it to your why. This does not mean politicize it, nor make it about you and your personal stress or pain.  Rather discuss how this has reinforced why you want to serve/make a difference. As noted earlier, some people may not be receptive to campaigning at this time. Be respective of them and their opinion, and politely explain to them how it is exactly because of these uncertain times and the need to deal with the specific impacts of COVID in your district that you are even more committed to serving your neighbors. Make sure here that you are speaking authentically about yourself and your district.
  2. Revise your overall focus on the issues. Potholes in the road probably are not on the top of the list of concerns anymore. Conversely, COVID is probably not the only concern, even though is it probably the number one issue.
  3. Step up and be a public leader now – which you can demonstrate by:
    1. Being the calm in the storm. Don’t make things more stressful by making this a political ideological fight, or a blame game. Now is not the time. Make it about finding solutions and moving forward towards healthier and better times.
    2. Listen with compassion. Before starting your political pitch, ask people how they are doing and how you can help; sincerely listen because sometimes leadership is simply listening. 
    3. Be a connector and a resource. You don’t have to have the all answers to people’s questions, but it would be helpful to be able to connect them to the appropriate resources or help them know where and how to find the help they need. For example, making sure seniors know when senior shopping hours are scheduled at the local grocery store, providing an online link to a reputable source of symptoms of COVID, etc.
    4. Be an optimistic voice. There is enough stress and anxiety out there. Provide realistic optimism, without going overboard, communicating that we will get through this together and it will get better. Our country has survived many, many hardships and we will survive this too, and people need to hear some positivity. As  a leader, you are the right person to share it, with realistic optimism. To reinforce the earlier point that “voters don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” you may have heard Maya Angelou express a similar sentiment when she said: “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Try to end conversations on a positive note about how we will get through this together and how you want to work to ensure that the problems affecting your own community are improved.

Strategy first, then tactics. While these are uncertain times for candidates, they are even more uncertain for all of us — the people you want to serve. If you always put first the people you want to serve, then, yes, it’s okay to campaign.