Will COVID-19 Change American Politics As We Know It?
We are all reeling from the continued effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and the electoral system is only just now starting to realize that the world may not recover soon enough for elections to take place in their traditional sense. First, candidates have to walk a very fine line on deciding whether or not to even campaign at the moment. There is a very real possibility that people who would normally be voters will see open campaigning in a time of crisis as opportunistic and selfish and refuse to vote at all or vote for an opponent who stays in the shadows no matter who they are. On the other hand, it’s not like elections won’t happen anyway, so candidates may shift their rhetoric away from normal policy topics and partisan fighting towards more solutions-based conversations around the single topic of COVID-19. And then there’s the matter of how a person actually campaigns in this kind of sequestered environment. Campaigns are waking up to the new reality of a constituency that is confined to their homes and to the Internet. A recent Texas Tribune article outlines this concern: More than anything else, it is hard work that makes campaigns successful. "You walk, you win," is an old campaign motto, referring to door-knocking. And in the modern era, candidates hold fundraisers and events where they can shake hands and take selfies with supporters. They also host town halls and rallies, packed with hundreds of supporters.
All of which are activities that spread germs.
So, how do you walk the line between campaigning in a new, virtual way and not overselling yourself as selfish while people are fearing for their lives? I have yet to see anyone do it well yet, honestly. For candidates I think they have to face a few realities and create a brand new political calculus: What is the honest outlook of people in your district about coronavirus? Some districts have people that are more or less fearful than others (for better or worse). So the calculation of whether or not openly campaigning will offend constituents depends greatly on the public perception of the pandemic in that area. Do you have the right team in place to help you deal with the new campaigning style? For at least the near-future campaigns, this will be a very different type of campaign than what anyone is used to. Those campaigns that have traditionally relied on a robust field campaign and yard signs as the main way to get their name and message out there (and I’d say this applies to at least 90% of campaigns out there right now), this is going to be a hard transition. People aren’t driving around much right now, so yard signs and billboards are basically worthless. Direct mail might still be as effective as they ever were, which in itself is arguable. And door-to-door field campaigns are basically verboten right now. So do you have the right staff to move you away from in-person campaigning to online campaigning? Probably not entirely, if we’re being honest. Figure out what kind of virtual campaigning is going to work for you and your district Campaigns must transition to a more robust online presence in the short term. What that looks like will depend largely on trial and error, unfortunately, and there won’t be much time for too many forced errors before the elections happen. Options include virtual town halls, AMA’s (Ask Me Anything - see Reddit), Facebook Live conversations, and a greatly increased social media presence to get themselves in front of voters during this time of quarantine. I expect that firms specializing in geofencing and citizen filtering by political preference will be in high demand over the next handful of months. Rescheduling Elections Texas Governor Greg Abbott has already issued a declaration suspending portions of the Texas Government and Election Codes to allow local governments to suspend all elections that were expected to occur on the uniform election day in early May and move them to November. He also set a special election in an uncommon time, mid-July, to continue Sen. Kirk Watson’s unexpired term in SD 14. This special election had been rumored to be set in late May, but was pushed back to July when the state started locking down due to the pandemic. All of these actions are certainly warranted and unsurprising, but they also cause havoc on political handicapping for these and many other elections. For instance, what if someone on the ballot for the May 2 uniform election had the idea to run for the SD 14 special election if they lose their race in May? They are not able to be on the ballot in two places at the same time, so the local ballot suspension to November now means that they are unable to have a free run at the local race any longer. They would have to choose which they’d like to run for.
That example seems petty and unimportant as I write it, but it’s a very real political calculation that candidates have to make in a normal election cycle. With election dates in question and primary runoffs possibly also being postponed, it changes the calculus for who could win any specific race quite a bit. This also means that contributors who want to pick a winning campaign to contribute to will have a much harder time making educated guesses as to which person to back and may stay out of races altogether. Alternatively, it could mean that, with so much confusion and uncertainty out there, the person with the most money to put their face all over the internet could walk through an election they have no business winning.
As we speak, the Governor is also considering calls from the parties to consider an election cycle with all mail-in ballots. Considering that this would be the first time that this has ever happened in Texas, we can expect a high level of scrutiny on the process and many, many challenges to the final vote tally from sore losers once the elections actually occur. This means that the final election results will be delayed even further, and we may not have final results for some time before anyone can actually get to work in their newly elected positions. Readjustment back to the mean? One final question that remains in my head is this: if we do see a seismic shift in the way campaigns are run and the way elections are held in Texas during this pandemic….what happens when it’s over? Do we all revert back to business-as-usual or is this a watershed moment in our electoral history that there’s no coming back from? Is this actually the politically digital revolution being forced on us, finally? Could this be the impetus that forces us to actually consider mobile voting as a real option for the first time?
There are so many questions that don’t have answers yet. And the possibilities are changing literally every day.