Getting out to meet voters one-on-one can be a key part of campaigning. But this year, establishing that connection won’t be easy, as COVID-19 concerns leave candidates worrying about getting too close for comfort.
Some say they’ll turn to both tried-and-true methods, as well as virtual communication, to spread their message.
“The challenge is how to reach the voters in a time when folks may be nervous about people knocking on their doors,” Richard Merkt, a Westmoreland Republican and former New Jersey assemblyman who is running to represent Cheshire District 1 in the N.H. House, said in an email last week. “There are other methods to reach voters, but they are not as personal as face-to-face meetings.”
Guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing face coverings, don’t lend themselves to getting personal with voters.
“Traditionally, [meeting voters in person is] a really important aspect of getting voters to feel like they know a candidate and that they can relate to the candidate and that they can sort of buy in to what the candidate is all about,” said Phil Barker, associate professor of political science at Keene State College.
Democrat Amanda Elizabeth Toll of Keene, a first-time candidate seeking election to the N.H. House in Cheshire District 16, said campaigning is going to be particularly difficult for political newcomers like her. But she’s optimistic that voters are interested in new faces and fresh ideas. And, as the owner of a Keene-based business, Ms. Amanda’s Compassionate Ice Cream, she believes people are already familiar with her, which will help.
Toll said she plans to run a socially distanced campaign, taking advantage of social media and other traditional forms of outreach that don’t require close contact.
“I am planning on campaigning safely using social media, the phone, mail and email, in order to raise awareness about the issues facing our state,” she said by email.
Barker said it’s not unheard of for a campaign to be successful while relying more on virtual outreach and less on personal interaction. He pointed to President Donald Trump’s 2016 run for the White House, when his campaign made heavy use of social media ads, though Barker said it’s still up in the air whether that approach could work consistently.
In lieu of face-to-face meetings, Barker said candidates have other options for getting their message out. Social media will certainly be a part of it, he said, and voters can expect text messages from candidates.
“Well-run campaigns, and also the political parties, have databases of voters — who’s a likely voter, who’s a repeat voter — and candidates are able to tap into that to target people for get-out-the-vote-type campaigns,” he said. “ ... In the fall and up to the primary, I got countless texts from various candidates encouraging me to get out and vote, to tell me about issues.”
On the other hand, he said, traditional forms of campaigning may not be entirely abandoned. Candidates may adapt their approach by standing and speaking to voters from a distance or leaving literature on their doorsteps, though he said that could backfire if voters are wary of people knocking on their doors in the midst of a pandemic.
Merkt said he anticipates social media being a significant part of the process, but he also plans to use other common strategies like signs, emails and regular mail, as well as virtual meetings, to get his message out there.
“We are giving a lot of attention to developing clear and concise campaign messages to the voters,” he said. “This is, I might add, an iterative process that works best with voter feedback. What seems to a candidate to be an earth-shattering issue may well not be a significant concern for voters.”
Not being able to interact face-to-face will make it harder for him to learn from voters’ reactions to his message, he said. He added that it can be difficult to represent people if a politician can’t learn what they expect from their government.
The 2020 election cycle will be a “new venture for both parties,” Marilyn Huston, chairwoman of the Cheshire County Republican Committee, said. She has spoken with other area Republicans who agree it will be best not to make voters uncomfortable with close-contact campaigning before it is considered safe to do so.
State Rep. Joe Schapiro of Keene, a Democrat running for re-election in the same House district as Toll, said the health guidelines would have to loosen significantly before he would consider more personal forms of campaigning.
“Unless things change quickly and dramatically, I don’t foresee going door-to-door or appearing at events with a lot of people,” he said.
Instead, he plans to embrace other traditional means of campaigning, such as recycling lawn signs from his 2018 campaign, and may send out a mailer. And while Schapiro isn’t an avid social media user, he said the technology will play a role in this year’s run.
As a 31-year resident of Keene, Schapiro said he’s already well-known in the community and didn’t do a lot of door-knocking in his first campaign. But he said the time he did spend speaking with residents at their homes was a positive experience, and they were glad for an opportunity to be heard on issues they cared about.
When it comes to making personal connections, Schapiro, a therapist, drew a parallel between campaigning and seeing a health provider virtually, through telemedicine.
“It’s really important to provide telemedicine,” he said. “But I also feel there’s something lost when there’s not an in-person connection. And I would say the same thing about campaigning.”