As the pandemic continues, political campaigns are adapting

Just like everybody else, the pandemic pushed door-to-door campaign canvassers off streets and into their houses early last month.

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Political gatherings like Nikil Saval’s December campaign launch are no longer the norm amid the Coronavirus pandemic | Photo courtesy of Amanda McIllmurray

For the last several weeks, pandemonium surrounding coronavirus has taken over life as we know it, and forgiveness can be granted if you forgot that it’s still primary season all across America. Philadelphia is no exception to that rule, despite the Pennsylvania primary being pushed back from April 28 to June 2. Just like everybody else, the pandemic pushed door-to-door campaign canvassers off streets and into their houses early last month.

“We were just getting into the swing of things,” said Andre Del Valle, who’s running against incumbent Mary Isaacson in the 175th Legislative District’s Democratic primary. “We had a lot of events planned out up to April 28, the original primary date, and we’ve had to cancel them all.”

Going forward, Del Valle said it would be “selfish” for his campaign to put the election before the needs of people struggling in these uncertain times. Instead, he’s using his campaign resources to do things like get the word out about small business relief funds and provide meals to residents.

“We refocused our efforts,” Del Valle said. “At the end of the day people will see what we’re doing and hopefully they remember that we were the ones who were out there when other people continued their campaigns.”

But the Del Valle campaign isn’t unique in its decision to use resources to help people. Isaacson has shifted her re-election campaign’s focus to helping people during the pandemic as well.

“In all honesty, it’s a matter of public safety and helping people deal with the crisis,” she said. “There isn’t much of an appetite for dealing with campaign issues, and I’m sensitive to that.”

Isaacson’s campaign is still making phone calls to residents, but instead of talking about the election, they’re about letting residents know someone’s there for them.

“I hope to be judged on strong leadership qualities,” she said. “I’m lucky I’ve received many endorsements, and I feel happy that they’re [supportive of] the job that I’m doing.”

Vanessa McGrath, who’s in the same primary race as Del Valle and Isaacson, shifted her campaign primarily to phone banking as well. Like Isaacson and Del Valle, her campaign is mostly reaching out to check in on people.

“The most important thing is to touch base with people and see if they’re OK,” she said. “If the campaign doesn’t even come up in the conversation, that’s fine.”

McGrath, taking things a step further, knew people would be spending more time at home on the internet, so she made it a point to revamp her website. She added a tab on the homepage labeled “campaign from home,” which has information about mail-in voting, where to get official updates and how to check-in on your neighbors during the pandemic. From a political standpoint, however, she thinks the inability to canvas levels the playing field among the candidates, with the advantage going to whoever is most “creative” in reaching out to voters. She thinks that she has an inherent advantage as a candidate challenging an incumbent.

“I think the current circumstances highlight the failure of the establishment to take care of folks,” she said. “People are angry and upset and afraid whether the state government is doing enough to protect people. A lot of challengers are going to be given more of a fair shake from the voters because they realize that we need change in our state government.”

McGrath, who supports paid medical leave, a fair minimum wage and free access to health care, believes that the policies she campaigns on are the ones that could really be of use during times like these.

“These aren’t things we should just care about during times of crisis,” she said. “When we come out on the other side of this, what world do we want to live in?”

The campaign of Nikil Saval, who’s running in the 1st Senatorial District, also thinks its issues-oriented campaign is best suited to help struggling families during times like these.

“We normally talk to our neighbors about the issues they’re experiencing and connecting that to Nikil’s plan for housing, education and criminal justice reform,” said Saval’s campaign manager, Amanda McIllmurray. “We’re still doing campaigning and persuading voters, but we’ve also included this aspect of helping our neighbors with resources they need, like asking them about groceries, picking up prescriptions and responding with mutual aid resources.”

McIllmurray noted that the campaign has had more success reaching voters as of late because people tend to be stuck in their houses without much to do. 

Saval’s competitor in the primary, incumbent Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st dist.), has been holding online events designed to get information out about how to help people such as healthcare workers, restaurateurs and small business owners during the time of crisis.

“Every other day we’ve been doing some kind of town hall,” he said. “My [focus] really turned to the people I represent. Campaigns are important and we haven’t shut ours down, but that has to take a back seat.”

He said he was happy to see the primary get moved back, but is still concerned for the safety of voters and people working polls on election day.

“I’m really glad that we chose a later primary,” he said, “but I’m concerned about folks not wanting to work polls. We need to do everything possible to ensure the safety of voters and people working polls.”

The statewide campaign of Bernie Sanders has also stopped canvassing, and is focused instead on digital campaigning and a new way of phone banking.

“One of the things that we have been prioritizing is relational organizing,” said the Sanders campaign’s Pennsylvania coordinator, Brooke Adams. Relational organizing, Adams said, is the practice of reaching out to people you already know, who’ll be more likely to respond when you call. 

“Those conversations are the most effective,” said Adams. “You’re more likely to pick up a phone call from somebody you went to high school with or a family member.”

Adams also said the Sanders campaign has lots of virtual events, like “digital organizing parties,” which it holds every day.

Although the pandemic has stalled door-to-door canvassing for all campaigns, an inability to canvas will likely disproportionately affect smaller, hyper-local campaigns, says Tommy McDonald, vice president of WIN, a Democratic political consulting agency.

“This will have way more of an adverse impact on a campaign for a state representative than for governor,” said McDonald. “Door-to-door canvassing is one of the only ways candidates on the hyper-local level have for campaigning. It removes a significant tool from their toolkit.”

According to McDonald, who is not consulting for any of the candidates mentioned in this article, campaigns everywhere are working to find different ways to connect with people whether that’s by phone or by mail.

“It’s a bit of a challenge because the best way for candidates to directly reach people is door to door,” he said.

Matt Levendusky, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that door-to-door canvassing is particularly effective at getting people to vote.

“The exception is young people, though,” he said. “The caveat is that they’re harder to mobilize in person because they tend to live in dorms and apartments where it’s harder to gain access to individual units.”

Levendusky shares Farnese’s concern for the safety of voters and poll workers during an election. He cited Wisconsin, which had to call in the National Guard to help staff polling places during its Tuesday primary, as evidence that states could have difficulty staffing elections. Voters might not come out to vote for the same reason, affecting turnout. 

“Many of the poll workers I see when I go out to vote are definitely in the senior citizen category,” said Levendusky, referring to the age range in which people are most likely to be susceptible to the virus. “They’re justifiably nervous about being in an enclosed place.”

He said that Pennsylvania is in a better position than some other states because it allows mail-in ballots, but just how well voters are aware of that fact is unknown. Despite that, he said it would make sense for the state to shift to a mostly-vote-by-mail system.

“I think there’s some academics pushing for that possibility,” he said. “In a state like Pennsylvania it’s certainly possible…In a lot of other states that’s not possible.”

There’s been rumbling among some Democrats that if the pandemic stretches out into November it might be bad for their party in the general election. Some Democrats attribute this to the way Fox News has covered the pandemic, which they say has been less serious than more liberal news networks. As a result, Democrats fear, Republican turnout won’t be hindered as much as Democratic turnout.

Levendusky said this was one of the many unknowns of the COVID era. It’s also unknown what kind of effect coronavirus will have on Americans’ policy preferences.

“It might reshape whether Medicare for All or greater healthcare affordability gets more attention, I don’t know,” Levendusky said. “I could see something in paid sick leave. It’s now going to become apparent to people that it might matter if the Amazon worker or the person Instacart shopping for you is sick and might pass coronavirus on to you because they don’t have paid sick leave.”

The presidential campaign for Joe Biden and the campaign for Jeff Dempsey, who is running in the 175th Legislative District, did not reply to requests for comment.