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When Kristy Gnibus decided to run for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 16th District, she couldn’t have known how much of her campaign would be spent at home, online. During her state’s coronavirus lockdown, the 35-year-old Democrat logged on to Zoom every weekday for two hours, and her social media postings became as frequent, random, and cozy as a micro-celebrity’s.
On one Facebook Live video, Gnibus refinished a wooden chair in her garage. In another, she supervised her two daughters making a cookie cake. She’s also live-streamed policy talks, where anyone from her district, in the northwest corner of the state, could ask her anything. Mostly just friends and supporters joined. Often they played trivia games on Kahoot! And yes, one of her high school students once Zoom-bombed just to giggle at her.
“They ask about mail-in ballots. They ask how I am campaigning now with the pandemic,” said Gnibus, a teacher and first-time candidate who ran uncontested in her state’s primary on June 2. She’s now taking on a five-term Republican. “I am trying to make myself available like I normally would be.”
Like most candidates, Gnibus had planned to canvas by door-knocking and introducing herself to voters face-to-face. She has ventured out a few times to talk to voters through a face mask at a Black Lives Matter rally and small picnics. But her campaign is still mostly relegated to online spaces. She worries she’s mostly hearing from friends and politically active Democrats — swing voters don’t log on to play trivia with a congressional candidate.
Just as they have reshaped the presidential election, COVID-19 and its restrictions on social interaction have upended local and regional races. Candidates can’t go door-knocking, an essential tool for first-time candidates and those hoping to raise awareness for a little-watched local office. Or if they can, they’re hesitant to.
Festivals, fairs, parades, and other public events that were fertile ground for voter connection have also been cancelled. Fundraising has been hampered as small-dollar donors get hit by job loss or economic freefall. Fundraising events — the house party hosted by friends who’ve morphed into supporters or the black-tie dinner of the moneyed donor class at a place like the infamous wine cave — are not happening.
The changes have left candidates scrambling for attention, donations, and, in some cases, even the signatures they need to get on the ballot. Like the rest of the country, elected office-seekers are now trying to maintain connection through casual online interaction, like posting workout or cooking videos.
“Traditional campaigning is over as we know it,” said Dan Meyers, senior director and head of advocacy for APCO Worldwide’s public affairs practice and an adviser to Republican political campaigns for 15 years. “Candidates are being forced to meet their constituencies where they are and on their own terms: online via specific apps or platforms, and in their homes by phone or traditional mail.”
“With this new environment,” he said, “the power of incumbency likely gets even stronger.”
Even when candidates can push past the new difficulties of campaigning during a global pandemic, Election Day can bring a new set of anxieties. In several states, primary dates have been pushed back, and the voting process is unrecognizable from years past. States have encouraged mail-in ballots, and election workers have scrambled to adjust to the flood of mail, leaving the results uncertain for days after. In other states, condensed polling stations and long lines have forced voters to balance their constitutional rights with their physical health.
The loss of the public square
Though it’s not an easy or certain one, Gnibus has a path to victory in November. Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who had battered previous Democratic challengers by 10 to 20 percentage points, won by just four in 2018, thanks in large part to a redistricting that leveled the playing field for Democrats. That same year, voters in Pennsylvania’s suburbs and small cities sent four new Democratic women to Congress.
(The campaign for Kelly, who incidentally contracted and recovered from COVID-19, did not respond to an interview request.)
But to repeat Democrats’ success in 2018, Gnibus needs to shore up votes in Erie, a tourism center on a Great Lake with some artsy vibes. The district also stretches through some rural Trump country and the outer suburbs of Pittsburgh, which may be more difficult for a Democrat.
She doesn’t expect to win there, but she wants to fight. “My big thing was to show up for them,” Gnibus said, “to show I am available.”
But it’s been difficult to actually show up. Candidates will go to where people are, so if that’s at their homes online, expect to see more videos of your possible next state representative or city council member gardening, baking, or even sharing how to do a proper burpee. Those skills have all become valuable assets this cycle.
Cory Alpert, a South Carolina-based Democratic campaign strategist, is working with a gym owner running for South Carolina’s state house. On Wednesdays, the candidate posts workout videos from her yard. Another candidate, who he declined to name, takes to a live-stream and “plays guitar like a middle-schooler. No offense to middle-schoolers, but it was a way to make a connection.”
“Traditional campaigning is over as we know it.”
He doesn’t worry it comes off as hokey. “I think people tend to overthink authenticity,” he said. “I think you have to do what comes naturally to the candidate, so if your candidate is a wonk, get some policy experts and do a Zoom meeting. If your candidate engages on a personal level, do a video of whatever they do every day.”
In the fight for New York State’s 34th Assembly District, located in Central Queens, Assemblyman Michael DenDekker faced a fierce challenge from Jessica González-Rojas, a progressive, and the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. As Central Queens became a coronavirus epicenter, both candidates stopped campaigning in any traditional way.
DenDekker said his sole focus has been using his office to get information, supplies, and relief to constituents. González-Rojas said she reorganized her campaign infrastructure. Volunteers who were making calls to ask people to vote asked if they needed any food or supplies.
One night, González-Rojas took time off from running a disaster-relief campaign to record a cooking video. Connected by Zoom, a campaign volunteer guided her through making pastelón, described in the video as “a Puerto Rican lasagna.” They had an in-depth conversation about parallels of lack of federal assistance to Puerto Rico and to Puerto Rican enclave neighborhoods on the mainland — interrupted by González-Rojas asking when to put in the garlic.
“It was funny,” she said, “because I’m not a very good cook.”
González-Rojas declared victory in the June 23 primary, but the absentee votes are still being counted, the long delay another aspect of the 2020 election cycle.
In addition to helping voters connect to candidates on a personal level, these moments that seem like early YouTube fill a media void: Some candidacies are at the stage where they would be shooting campaign ads, but film crews can’t assemble. It’s another interruption to a process that normally progresses on a schedule to Election Day.
Candidates also have another tool to reach voters stuck at home: targeted Google and Facebook ads and mailers for select ZIP codes. These may be even more useful, according to Alpert. It’s a balancing act, he said: While timing-consuming, in-person connections, either from the candidate or volunteers and staffers, are the best way to get people to vote. Voters tend to keep their promise to cast a ballot if they make it to an actual person. Mass media requires much less investment per voter reached, but it’s easy to ignore mailers and the increasingly common campaign text.
But the finer points and emotional appeal of campaigns may also be harder to convey through a piece of cloth. Gnibus, an ovarian cancer survivor, is keen to talk about healthcare and, as a teacher, is naturally passionate about education.
“I’m thinking outside the box,” Gnibus said. As the election nears, she might campaign masked and carry an iPod stuffed with videos of herself explaining her policy positions. “I’d just have to press play.”
With a risk of coronavirus transmission, voters might be offended at the notion of a candidate risking their health through in-person interaction, which, in turn, risks the health of friends and family in the web of people with whom they still make physical contact.
“My dad is 71,” Alpert said. “So if someone were to come up to me and say, ‘I’m x candidate,’ I would think, ‘Why are you risking our health for this?’ I think some folks might be turned off.”
But for some candidates, the time has come to take that risk — with precautions.
Connecticut state Sen. Marilyn Moore, whose district includes the city of Bridgeport, thinks it’s time for some casual campaigning. Now that it’s summer, she’s been seeing more people walking around town, biking, and she wants to connect with them ahead of her Aug. 11 Democratic primary. But she has a system.
“I am going to knock on the door, walk back six feet, and when they answer, I will ask them if they are willing to talk about the state Senate,” she said. She’ll wear a mask, a light blue one she thinks indicates professionalism (it looks like a nurse’s mask) but also warmth (it’s an inviting color). She’ll carry masks to offer to the voters she’s speaking with
Like most of the New York metro area, Bridgeport peaked as a coronavirus hotspot in April. For months, the city remained in lockdown, relegating Moore to phone-banking. Her garage is full of American flags that she would have given out while campaigning at public events for Memorial Day, Juneteenth, and the Fourth of July, all of which were cancelled.
“My first question is always, ‘How are you doing?’”
In the gritty city of Bridgeport, Republicans don’t run against Democrats for local office. Instead, every two years, those favored by the machine-like Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee face off against outsiders and reformers in Democratic primaries, which can become bitter. Moore, a former nonprofit executive and community organizer, is an outsider, who outmaneuvered an establishment candidate to first take the seat in 2014.
Her Democratic Town Committee-backed challenger this cycle is Bridgeport City Councilman Marcus Brown. He has a different, though also cautious, approach, to door-knocking. He calls ahead and asks if the voter would be OK with a visit.
“Surprisingly, people do want to hear from candidates,” Brown said. “They have a lot of questions and concerns about what’s going on right now.” He also wears a mask and steps six feet back after ringing the doorbell.
Dialing for dollars after a sudden recession
Moore and Brown both used their time in lockdown to work on fundraising. Connecticut’s public financing system provides matching funds to candidates who raise $15,000. It was a hard scramble for both, with friends and neighbors out of work.
Brown says he asked people from his apartment building. “I just asked that if you know me, give whatever you can,” he said. “If it’s $5, I will take $5.”
Moore said she called friends and contacts involved in social justice issues from outside the state, which is allowed under the state’s system. But getting money from all but the wealthiest donors is a big ask in an era of Great Depression-like economic numbers, record unemployment, and the financial anxiety that accompanies both.
Republican State Sen. Stephanie Bice started the year with $334,105 in her bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s Fifth District. Others in the GOP primary for the Fifth have used personal loans and self-financing, but Bice counted on contributions and advanced to a run-off election.
She’s had more time to call donors since she’s been stuck at home, but oil and gas, one of the district’s main industries, has taken an enormous hit as demand plummeted due to the economic shutdown. “It’s sensitive to candidates,” said Bice. “My first question is always, ‘How are you doing?’”
Tone can be crucial, as some pleas might come off as offensive. Moore flubbed when she made a “tongue-in-cheek” Facebook post in late March that read: “When you get those stimulus checks, make sure you save $$ some for Moore for Senate. Just sayin’.” Brown blasted her as “out of touch,” and she deleted the post.
“I think people know me as lighthearted,” Moore said. “‘Just sayin’’ in my community means, I was kidding. Still, people jumped on me for that. It was in the heart of COVID-19. I was riffing on the only good news, and they turned it around on me.”
Still, the post showed the hazards of fundraising during an economic crisis.
New candidates usually start with seed money from themselves or close friends and family and eventually need to connect with people who share their beliefs to create a base of donors, some of whom will give multiple times.
The donor list should be of people of “different levels” of income, according to Woodrow Johnston, a strategist at McShane LLC, a Las Vegas-based media strategy and political consulting firm. The base can range from small-dollar donors who get frequent emails or text messages asking for a few bucks to deep-pocked heads of industry who get personal phone calls. For more-moneyed donors who candidates call personally and depend on highly, the floor is set at a $70,000 annual income and could extend to “billions,” he said. Only 12% of Americans donate to candidates. “They tend to be very conservative or very liberal,” he said.
Fundraisers, often hosted by a contact within the donor community, are a tool to break past the self-financed stage. Beyond the money raised at the event, the fundraiser creates a bond between candidate and donor.
“Psychologically, they will take that call when you call them [for another donation] if they know you,” Johnston said. “Not having that ability has really hurt candidates.”
Gnibus held her last in-person public fundraiser on March 8, at an art gallery in Erie. She has done virtual events ever since, where she meets potential donors on Zoom, once with another Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidate. She’s also been dialing potential donors.
“Fundraising has been exceptionally difficult,” she said. “People are laid off of their jobs and everyone has taken a hit.”
Some political fundraising has, like work meetings and happy hours and all else, moved to Zoom. Professional political consultants say they’re still seeing a drop-off in donations and donor engagement.
Heather Colburn, CEO of the consulting firm Run the World and an organizer and fundraiser for progressive candidates, said donations have decreased for some of her clients.
“Candidates who had the most robust campaigns before February will have an advantage,” she said. “How do you build a base when you are stuck at home?”
Candidates face an additional challenge in spending the money they have. Many go on a spree two weeks before a primary election date. If they don’t make it past that hurdle, what else is there to spend on? Many states moved their primary dates to late spring and summer and encouraged mail-in voting. That left consultants and candidates scrambling to reach voters who could make the irreversible decision any day they decide to send the ballot.
“We have to stretch out those dollars,” Colburn said, “because we have to persuade those voters for as long as they have that ballot.”
Aside from fundraising, the greatest challenge for candidates this year, especially first-time ones, might be the advantage of incumbents, who already have name recognition, a donor base, and an office from which to aid constituents.
“For the most part, I think it will help an incumbent up to the point they are not seen as associated with [someone] messing up a response,” said Alpert. Current New York state office holders, for example, will be keen to attach themselves to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose approval rating spiked due to his handling of the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, incumbents in Georgia might try to distance themselves from Gov. Brian Kemp and his disastrous reopening.
“I think if you just keep your head down, you’ll have an advantage,” Albert said.
Cover: Screenshot from Kristy Gnibus' campaign Facebook page.