Campaigns adjust strategies during COVID-19 outbreak

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 4:32pm

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Design by Caitlin Martens

Since summer 2019, Porter Hughes, LSA freshman and co-founder of Students for Bernie at the University of Michigan, has spent hours knocking on doors, phone banking and offering rides to and from local polling stations in support of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Hughes also helped organize Sanders’s rally in Ann Arbor in March. The event featured the senator and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY.

“I’ve been working on the campaign since August, but I started my training over the summer in July,” Hughes said. “Students for Bernie at UMich was started in September and has been working for the campaign since then as well. We worked to promote Bernie on campus by holding events such as canvasses, phone banks and the rally with Bernie and AOC.”

Other campus organizations supporting political campaigns — whether in support of national, state or local politicians — have also put in effort in trying to get their candidates elected by connecting to voters face-to-face. 

But now traditional methods of campaign mobilization have been either upended or called off due to the recent outbreaks of COVID-19, a pandemic sweeping the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

In the U.S., the number of individuals testing positive for COVID-19 has risen to more than 59,000 cases and more than 300 deaths as of Wednesday, making the U.S. third highest in number of confirmed cases, as of Sunday. More than 158 million Americans are now mandated by state governments to stay at home in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. 

In Michigan, the number of cases has spiked to more than 2,000 across the state as of Wednesday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency on March 10 after the first cases were detected in Michigan. Whitmer has since banned gatherings of more than 50 people, closed all schools and public spaces and restricted hospital visits. Whitmer also put a shelter-in-place order into effect beginning March 24. 

Other states, including California, New York and Illinois, have also issued similar orders. With Americans unable to leave their homes — unless in cases of emergency — campaigns have been forced to shut down campaign rallies, face-to-face town halls and canvassing events.

“This was in nobody’s playbook,” Hughes said. “It kind of took everyone by surprise. It required some maneuvering, and I’m really proud of our team in being able to pick up where we left off.”

Both Sanders’s and former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaigns have mandated that staffers work remotely. Field-organizers will continue campaigning via digital platforms such as phone banking and mobile updates. Both candidates have also shifted to conducting “virtual” town halls and broadcasting their speeches remotely. 

Biden has switched all of his efforts to online campaigning, recently holding a virtual town hall in Illinois that was stopped fifteen minutes into questions due to technical difficulties. He has also held a virtual fundraiser and plans to continue virtually campaigning amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Andrew Schaeffler, LSA freshman and co-founder of Students for Biden at the University, said the campus organization plans to readjust its efforts to support Biden by working remotely and focusing on virtual campaigning.

“We can’t have a presence on campus, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not doing everything we can,” Schaeffler said. “There’s still virtual campaign events that are happening, that our members are participating in. And (this crisis) just goes to show that when you’re dealing with these problems as president, you don’t want someone that needs on-the-job training. And I think that for many voters, that will be the deciding factor.”

President Donald Trump has also had to adjust his campaign due to the outbreaks. He recently postponed or canceled events in Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin. Trump has also called for all of his campaign staffers to begin working from home and has canceled all in-person rallies and events until further notice. 

Students for Trump did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment. 

Down-ballot campaigns have also had to scramble to find alternative ways of engaging voters that do not jeopardize an individual’s health or safety. Some have halted campaigning entirely for the time being while some have switched to more virtual outreach and campaigning. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who is up for re-election in November in Michigan’s 12th Congressional District, spoke to The Daily about halting her current campaign efforts for the time being to focus on serving her constituents to the best of her ability. 

“I don’t think (campaigning) is a priority,” Dingell said. “I’ll have to figure it out down the road. But now, I’m not up there saying, ‘vote for me.’ I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask people to vote for you right now. I’ve been very focused on making sure everyone’s okay. What are we going to do to make sure that people are safe? My campaign will come back up again in a few weeks. My job is to represent the people of my district, to make sure I can do everything I can to fight for them.”

Solomon Rajput, Dingell’s opponent in the Democratic primary, has moved all of his campaign operations online and ordered his staff and volunteers to work remotely from home. Rajput spoke to The Daily about the importance of keeping voters engaged by helping to put to the forefront what issues voters care about most. 

“You know, this isn’t just a regular campaign,” Rajput said. “We do need to make sure that we are doing what we can to improve people’s lives during this crisis. (We are) able to really focus in and rally around (the issues) people will be facing during this crisis and are trying to help people through that and let people know that we’re here to champion their issues … I think it’s important for people to demonstrate their commitment to materially improving the lives of Americans.” 

Marianne Drysdale, LSA senior, is working to re-elect Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who is up for re-election in the fall She serves as co-president for Students for Gary Peters, a student group that is not directly affiliated with Peter’s campaign but has still focused its energy on supporting his candidacy. 

She said in-person interactions play an important role in campaigning.

“Things have really, really, really changed, because in organizing the most effective way to transition a conversation into a vote is through in-person interaction,” Drysdale said. “And for us, campaigning now is probably going to be mostly using our personal digital networks and reaching out to other people that we know to use their digital networks. So it’s a completely different kind of strategy.”

As campaigns have struggled to adjust to life amid the coronavirus, the general election itself could also be affected. States across the country have already begun to postpone their primary elections set to take place in March or April to later in the summer.

“No one really can predict what the world will look like in November,” Drysdale said. “Because there’s scenario A, which is people aren’t worried about (the election). People are more worried about their dire economic circumstances or about exiting the house. Or scenario B is that people are really frustrated with the status quo of our federal leadership or people are feeling all the more empowered to be keeping up with the news … I don’t think that anybody really has the capacity to be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen.”

Rajput also noted the uncertainty.

“We can’t even see two weeks out right now,” Rajput said. “Everyone’s just taking this day by day … I think what is paramount to our country and also thousands of individuals is to ensure that everyone is as healthy as possible.” 

Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu.