Since mid-March, opportunities for face-to-face meetings and handshakes have been limited. Social distancing and lockdown mandates forced cities across the country to adopt an entirely new way of life. Virtual platforms received a boost as more and more people work from home and connect with friends remotely. Streaming services also saw tremendous traffic with outdoor entertainment venues being cancelled left and right. In so many ways, technology had to step up and fill a void, and its role in political campaigns has been no different.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many of the ways that political campaigns would normally be conducted. Door-to-door canvasing is frowned upon given the risk for spreading COVID-19. Grassroots appearances at community events have similarly been affected. And given that it’s a presidential election year, large rallies have been put on hold. Like many other activities, traditional strategies have had to adapt. But can digital politics be as effective in helping candidates get elected? And if so, which virtual strategies are best for political campaigns? These are questions that have yet to be fully answered.
“Given the current dynamic, there are a lot of things up in the air. Maybe [digital politics] works, maybe it doesn’t. But you have to be creative as you try to address the issue of how are you going to go about reaching voters.” – David Winston, Republican strategist for the Winston Group
Virtual Political Campaigns to Mobilize Support
For all political campaigns, it is important to mobilize support to facilitate momentum. For incumbents and well-known candidates, digital politics can be quite powerful. In fact, candidates running for an election who have large social media followings can do quite well with digital politics. In such instances, candidates can continue to connect with current supporters in a daily basis. This allows them not only an opportunity to push their message forward but also more fully saturate their media feeds. In contrast, newcomers to the technology game often struggle to get traction. Given the sudden competition within digital politics with the pandemic, gaining a following can be difficult.
Digital politics also helps candidates mobilize support in another way. In addition to reaching their base, politicians are also able to better connect with staff and volunteers. In fact, digital politics utilizes videoconferencing and online content to help train political campaign personnel on new strategies. Many of these strategies replace door-to-door canvasing with emails, texts, and even phone calls. But likewise, digital politics takes advantage of online forums, social media feeds, and digital ads. Understanding that in-person training sessions are no longer possible, political campaigns must adapt. Thus, virtual platforms are being increasingly used to connect with and train existing candidate supports.
“If you have a campaign that’s already leaning heavily on media for messaging and voter contact, this might not be a terrible situation. But if you have a more grassroots campaign where you really are relying on field operations to get people out and to get the candidate into the community, it’s a lot tougher.” – Elizabeth Spiers, Political Consultant at The Insurrection
Fundraising with Digital Politics
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic altered political campaigns in public outreach. It has also affecting fundraising efforts as well. Expensive, per-plate fundraisers at major galas are no longer possible. Thus, candidates are having to use technologies in an effort to obtain donations and funding in other ways. Interestingly, these same types of venues are now being used in virtual space. For example, both Biden and Trump have been holding virtual fundraisers amidst current social distancing restrictions. Likewise, social media ads asking for financial contributions are also now common. Even Zoom happy hours for donors are being trialed in this regard.
While these technology trends can help larger congressional and presidential candidates, they might be more challenging for others. Local and state politicians may try the same digital politics and techniques to raise funds. However, at a time when economic concerns are far-reaching, it is unclear whether these types of efforts are productive. Regardless, options are limited for the moment. Thus, virtual fireside chats for paid logins as well as donation requests via Facebook and Twitter may be the best bet. Whether these are as convincing as in-person appearances in raising actual dollars remain to be seen.
“[Digital politics] can be much more carefully targeted. It is often considerably cheaper. It can be very interactive. It can be very immediate. You can respond to something in real time.” – Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida International University
Digital Politics for Winning Votes
In addition to maintaining support and raising funds, political campaigns are also turning to digital politics for recruit votes. Unlike existing supporters, swing voters and others are less likely to tune into virtual streams organized by specific candidates. Therefore, political strategists suggest that social media, texts, and emails may offer better bang for the buck. Live Facebook streams and Twitter townhalls may also be effective if sponsored by reputable media sites not blatantly partisan. And traditional advertising, mainstream media debates, and broadcast speeches will continue to persist unaffected by the pandemic.
In this regard, digital politics has already made an impression on political campaigning. Thus, these political strategies will need to be tweaked only slightly. But what is more noteworthy is how the pandemic could affect voter turnout at the polls. Debates exist as to whether online remote voting should be allowed. And questions about voter system preparedness among states and communities would have to be addressed. Given that reduced voter turnout could impact specific political groups and candidates more that others, this is an important issue. For this reason, many believe voter technology solutions in light of the pandemic is essential.
New Territories for Political Campaigns
No one expected a pandemic to affect global populations in 2020. Certainly, political candidates preparing for an upcoming election didn’t. But like many others, organizations are adapting with new strategies, and technology solutions are leading the way. Without question, virtual and digital politics has hit the big time, and all political campaigns are exploring their options. But so many unknowns exist when comparing digital politics to traditional campaign approaches. It will be an interesting year in terms of politics as a result. One thing is for sure, however. Digital politics is here to stay, and we’ll know which strategies work best once the 2020 election dust settles.