The Novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has spread around the world at a phenomenal rate. Many institutions and private businesses have had to shutter down, white-collar workers started to work from home, and people in general have been left in a sense of disbelief at how a virus could literally stop everything in its tracks.
Many people, especially those following the current US primaries, have realised that this is indeed a real threat when both Vice President Biden and Senator Sanders starting to cancel their rallies in order to help stop the spread of the virus. Sanders himself has said that the coronavirus “has obviously impacted (the campaign’s) ability to communicate with people in the traditional way, and that’s hurting (the campaign).”
The 15th March debate was held with no crowd in the studio, while the live stream victory speech of Vice President Biden, once the Florida, Illinois and Arizona elections were over, continued to cement the fact that this was not going to be an ordinary political campaign anymore, and that the candidates would have to find workarounds to the usual campaign playbook.
And it is not just campaigns in the US that have to adapt. Many countries are now postponing elections that were going to be held in March or April 2020, including the national elections of North Macedonia and Presidential elections in the non-recognised territory of Northern Cyprus. In other elections that were allowed to continue, such as those in France, Germany and Switzerland, political campaigns have had to adapt their strategies.
So how can political campaigns keep up their momentum and continue to organize amidst the coronavirus crisis?
Higher Ground Labs, a US-based company which is trying to build an ecosystem for progressive technology, has said that with the coronavirus outbreak in the US, and as less volunteers and staffers are able to go canvassing, campaigns will have to resort to other methods of making contact with the voters. Some of the tools they propose include peer-to-peer SMS; to maintain contact with donors and check whether the individual is registered to vote, phone tools like ‘automatic dialler’ and ‘robocalls’, which can move this essential part of a campaign from the phone-bank to the home, as well as platforms which allow supporters of the campaign to send emails, texts and calls to family members or friends who might be interested.
Higher Ground Labs also sees increasing reliance on postal mail, one of the first original political marketing techniques, which although is less scalable, has often proven to be impactful on certain sections of society, who do not or prefer not to use social media.
At the same time however, political campaigns will have to scale their use of social media, even more than they currently are. Online campaigning is not just Facebook or Instagram posts – Senator Bernie Sanders hosted ‘Fireside Chats’, which is also one of the ways campaigns can continue organizing through this crisis, as advocated by Mobilize.
Mobilize, a US-based ‘events management and volunteer recruitment platform’, has seen an huge increase in demand for its products. In the seven days preceding 11 March 2020 alone, the company has seen more than 50,000 signups. While urging political campaigns to prioritize the safety of volunteers and staffers, they have also issued their own guide on they can keep up their momentum. Mobilize argues that campaigns can continue to function by making use of remote phone and text-banking, as well as friend-to-friend outreach through online events. The guide also makes reference to the online trainings conducted by the Elizabeth Warren campaign, which were successful in sharing policy trainings to supporters via webinar format. The supporters would then be able to advocate for the policies of the campaign more comfortably, as they feel more informed.
This is also something proposed by another company involved in digital and field organizing, The Tuesday Company. It set up an online website, aptly named ‘Organizing while Corona’, which lets you download a short 2-page guide with six ideas about how campaigns can “sustain their momentum and engage supporters during this public health crisis.”
One of these ideas is in fact what Mobilized is proposing – moving in-person events to online-only events where speakers and trainings are held through online tools such as Zoom and Google Hangouts. The guide also proposes the use of Facebook Live by candidates themselves and the creation of DIY user-generated content, which is then disseminated through the campaign’s online platforms.
Moving away from the United States to countries that still held elections, such as France, the local elections held there saw a historically low turnout, with the Government ending up postponing the second round. This has brought into question whether the first round should also be cancelled because of the unusually low turnout, and if they stand, whether parties in second place will have an unfair advantage due to the longer amount of time to re-group and even go on to win the election.
Despite the threat of the virus however, party supporters were still out and about, giving campaign flyers to market-goers around France, a few days before the election on 15th March. In a space of a few days, the situation in France and Europe changed dramatically.
In the state of Bavaria in Germany, where local elections are also taking place, the campaigns have urged their supporters to send their ballots by mail, while campaigns have mostly moved online. A local Bavarian branch of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, has resorted to multiple Facebook Live streams to address questions from voters, before the 29 March run-off election for Mayor, while ramping up its use of Facebook ads to be able to reach supporters in light of the ‘stay-at-home’ policy of the Bavarian Government. Whereas in the month of January and February, only two ads were boosted, March saw four different ads being promoted by the page of the local political party.
At this point, COVID-19 has become the central issue of many political campaigns around the world, even if most of them have technically paused their campaigning. The best political campaigns are able to adapt according to public concerns, which is this case is obviously issues related to the coronavirus, such as health. In fact, we have seen political campaigns, such as the Bernie Sanders campaign, completely shift their focus to push forward policies that were previously considered extreme or unthinkable, such as Medicare For All or Universal Basic Income.
Despite this shift, campaigns will still have to find workarounds to one of the most basic and effective campaigning methods: the ability to directly meet and communicate with other humans.