Fending off sickness is nothing new for candidates, some of whom develop their own idiosyncratic strategies for avoiding run-of-the-mill colds and flu. Will Pierce, national trip director for Bernie Sanders in 2016, says he kept a “go bag” stocked with clementines and tea for the senator from Vermont, while Hillary Clinton swore by the immune-boosting properties of hot sauce.
But recently, as schools closed down, employers mandated telework and sporting events were canceled, candidates pursuing every level of elected office have been grappling with the repercussions of losing physical contact with voters. Thompson already noticed that the former veep, who normally lingered on the rope lines longer than Obama, made a quick exit at a March event in Detroit. Both Biden and Sanders have since canceled rallies and moved their March 15 debate from Arizona to CNN’s studios in Washington without a live audience. In some cases, voting itself has been postponed or will be done by mail only.
“Empathy in American politics is demonstrated by proximity,” says Doug Landry, who worked as a logistical quarterback for Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine in 2016. The need for social distancing means that the optics of close contact with voters — which can produce golden moments for a campaign, whether it’s the soft hug of a grandmother or a huddled chat with factory workers — are gone. “Vice President Biden has consoled people with an embrace,” Landry says. “That all happens on the rope line, and if you’re doing satellite interviews because we’re in a pandemic situation, then that kind of story can’t happen.”
As director of advance for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Will Ritter had to negotiate with the Secret Service to allow more physical contact between the governor and his supporters. “The Secret Service’s job is to mitigate risk and make those interactions as few as possible,” he says. “My job was to say, ‘That 10 feet between the podium and the front row ... it’s good for safety, but it makes my candidate look like he’s afraid of people.’ ”
There are, however, some possible vectors for contagion that wouldn’t be missed by personal aides. Having no babies to kiss or preschoolers to high-five is good because some politicians simply can’t resist the chance to meet their youngest constituents, says Reggie Love, Obama’s former body man. “The guy loves kids, and I don’t think he was ever like, ‘Oh, this kid looks snotty.’ ” (Unlike Gary Walsh, the fanatically loyal personal aide on “Veep,” none of the half-dozen body men I spoke with say they have gone as far as taking a “sneeze bullet” to protect their boss from a virus.)
The loss of personal contact may be taking an especially severe toll on local politicians. Presidential campaigns can move their efforts online in a sophisticated way, but those running for local office generally don’t have the digital resources that a major party presidential campaign does. “People are going to really start doubling down on digital efforts, but even those have so many pitfalls. It’s really difficult to do ads on Facebook,” says Lesley J. Lopez, a delegate in the Maryland State House representing Montgomery County who is up for reelection in 2022. “If you’re somebody down ballot like me, you have a volunteer to help with social. You don’t have a staffer to help navigate those complex digital issues.” She adds there’s no substitute for knocking on doors, which is still “the most cost-effective, time-effective way” to woo voters.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., Republican Sayd Hussain is adapting. He normally visits retirement communities or hands out business cards at his local Costco as part of his campaign for the Florida House of Representatives. In early March, he noticed voters growing more fearful as the virus spread. “When I’m meeting with folks at Costco, I used to be able to handshake,” says the 21-year-old candidate. But instead, he and one voter “exchanged foots left and right.”
Even that kind of reduced contact is better than nothing, say candidates and campaign veterans. When you’re running for Congress, “in-person events are a huge part of the campaign. In New Hampshire you meet people at the dump when it opens,” says Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Romney. (The senator from Utah once plucked the candles out of his Twinkie birthday cake to prevent staffers from catching his cold.) Suspending that aspect of campaigning “has a huge impact,” Williams says, “especially if you’re a challenger trying to shake up a race in a crowded primary or trying to take down an incumbent.”
In Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, Republican Kimberly Klacik faces an uphill battle in a special election against Democrat Kweisi Mfume, a former member of Congress and NAACP president, to replace the late representative Elijah Cummings (D). As coronavirus cases popped up across the state, the upstart candidate had to make do with fewer campaign volunteers. “We were expecting about 40 people to pick up their yard signs, and we only had 12 people who came by,” Klacik said the day after a recent meet-and-greet in Hunt Valley. “I can’t even afford to put a commercial on air; that’s going to kill me for sure.” (The special election, scheduled for April 28, will be held by mail only because of the outbreak.)
Beyond the practical fallout, candidates have also lost something less tangible than a firm handshake. Love says seeing Obama reach out and touch voters helped them grasp his message. “I think about it all the time and what it was to be a part of a very special movement, and how a skinny kid with a funny name from a rural state was able to convince the world that their voice could be heard in Washington,” Love says. “You get that from embracing people and letting people feel like they have that level of connectivity.”
Leigh Giangreco is a writer in Washington.