The Stew Reporting on government and politics

This year, no baby kissing

Politics | How the coronavirus pandemic changed political campaigns
by Kyle Ziemnick
Posted 9/10/20, 05:07 pm

Bishop Davidson had no political experience when he decided in 2019 to run for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. But he loves getting to know people, so he attended every city council meeting and all the local festivals and parades in his Springfield-area district.

“We door-knocked more than anyone else,” Davidson said.

That boosted his campaign against his opponent in the Republican primary, Macy Mitchell. As Davidson put it, his personal interactions allowed him to “control the pace of the campaign.”

Then the pandemic struck in the spring. Local authorities banned large gatherings, people retreated into their homes, and Davidson suddenly had no opportunity to talk with voters he’d been getting to know.

“The tables turned,” he said.

The pandemic has transformed the campaigns of candidates like Davidson, as door-knocking and hand-shaking give way to more creative methods of connecting with voters.

“This is the Zoom campaign,” Florida Democratic strategist Eric Johnson told South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel. “Literally, the old words we used for campaigning, ‘pressing the flesh,’ are finished.”

More than 700,000 Texans live in the 24th Congressional District in the northern suburbs of Dallas. The seat held by Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant since 2004 is up for grabs this year. Mark Bauer, a journalist who spent time working in Washington, became dissatisfied with both parties’ approaches and decided to run.

“Running as an independent means you’re running uphill,” Bauer said.

That’s especially true this year, when even gathering the 500 signatures necessary to get on the ballot became a major hurdle. Armed with masks and hand sanitizer, Bauer and his campaign manager, Caleb Paxton, worked together to collect signatures without spreading the virus, including one novel idea: They hosted a drive-thru signing event at a local park. In the end, Bauer got 529 signatures, landing him on the November ballot.

“[We had to] smile through our eyes without people really being able to see our face,” Paxton said.

Homeschool mom Jennifer Sefzik had an easier time getting on the ballot. As a Washington state committeewoman on the board of the Republican Party in her county, Sefzik decided in December to run for state legislator for the 42nd District, near the Canadian border. Her campaign ran smoothly until the pandemic hit.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

Sefzik turned to phone calls in the early stages of the lockdown, with more success than expected. Sometimes, 10 calls would turn into two hours of conversation. Quarantined voters seemed starved for human interaction and dialogue. Sefzik and her staff came up with other creative ways to reach constituents. They hosted events in supporters’ driveways, where citizens could drive up, say hello, pick up a campaign sign, and then leave.

When Sefzik could finally go back out and knock on doors, she found people more receptive: “It was rare that someone didn’t open the door.”

Yet her strategy has risks, and her Democratic opponent has criticized her campaign for venturing to people’s homes during the pandemic.

Nationally, Republicans have tended to return to traditional campaign tactics and personal interaction more quickly than Democrats, many of whom are trying to avoid personal physical contact at all costs, which is partly a pitch to undecided voters. Last month, Politico reported campaigners for President Donald Trump knocked on a million doors in one week, while supporters of Democratic nominee Joe Biden said they didn’t knock on any.

For Bishop Davidson, the loosening of coronavirus restrictions meant he could take advantage of voters’ willingness to talk. But the strategies he developed during the lockdown continued. His social media campaign grew significantly, using “fireside chats” over Facebook Live to answer voter questions. Davidson handed out campaign-branded masks and wore them on the trail. The improvements helped boost him to victory in the GOP primary in his red district.

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Kyle Ziemnick

Kyle is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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