Such blinding inconveniences have become a new reality for political professionals across the country, as the social distancing clampdown has transformed the art and logistics of politicking just in time for the quadrennial election circus to launch into overdrive.
While much of the attention has focused on former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, hunkering down in his Delaware basement to record his podcast, or President Trump seeking to monopolize the evening television airwaves, covid-19 has swiftly transformed all corners of the political universe.
Local candidates and name-brand leaders alike have been forced to abandon rallies, community centers and campaign offices. Volunteers, organizers and operatives have been quarantined into virtual meetings, letter-writing campaigns and mobile-texting blitzes.
One-on-one coffee meetings, the essential element of the political organizer’s day, still happen, but they occur virtually, with home-brewed tea.
Entire organizations have pivoted to meet the moment. Senior Republican officials, who have hundreds of Zoom meetups scheduled at any moment, boast of field organizers delivering groceries for homebound turnout targets. The Florida Democratic Party calls its 6 p.m. virtual phone banks “wine downs,” encouraging drinking and conversation in an effort to make the events more social.
That’s created a campaign like no other. With decades-old tactics instantly obsolete, no one knows what will work, how long it will last, what voters want to hear — or how this might reshape politics in the future.
In the meantime, it’s prompted an urgent hunt for ways to re-create the intimacies at the heart of politics. “During the time of social distancing, it is definitely important to get creative with the way we’re connecting with volunteers and the voters,” said John Koons, a leader of the Trump field program in Pennsylvania, at the start of training this month for about 70 new volunteers for Trump’s reelection bid.
The training, which has been repeated dozens of times across the country, had all the markings of this new era — a heavy emphasis on mobile-first technology, warnings not to be put off by frustrated voters on the other end of the line, and aspirational, if not anachronistic, talking points about door-knocking and Trump’s impact on the economy.
“The economy has been a huge accomplishment of him, adding millions of jobs every single year,” Koons said during the April 14 event, just days before the Labor Department announced that 22 million people had lost their jobs in a four-week span.
The Democratic Party, which remains far less centralized and is still retooling for a Biden candidacy, has also stepped up its efforts to virtually train thousands of “digital organizers” in the arts of voter contact, social media and volunteer recruitment.
“We needed to give our community something to do,” said Meg DiMartino, the digital organizing director of the Democratic National Committee. “We cannot take an eight-week sabbatical from organizing.”
Republican and Democratic strategists, along with grass-roots activists, describe a novel moment in political life. Never before have so many Americans been homebound, with time on their hands to answer the phone or put in volunteer hours. Pollsters have found that people are answering their phones again at rates not seen in decades.
“It’s like it’s the 1990s and everyone is basically an old woman in rural Iowa picking up their landlines,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Biden.
At the same time, the virus has displaced politics and elections as a concern for many, as people worry about making rent or mortgage payments, finding food and staying healthy. As a result, everyone from national organizers to local candidates has shifted their messaging from big-picture arguments to practical questions about how they can help.
“Folks want to feel like they belong somewhere, like they are part of a team, so we are trying to do our best to give them that experience,” said Geoff Burgan, a spokesman for Organizing Together 2020, an independent group backed by labor that is building field organizations with a staff of more than 400 in six swing states. “It’s getting the in-person rush of a campaign office and helping to bring that online.”
For Kathy Knecht, a Democrat and former school board member running for the Arizona legislature, that means trying to figure out new ways of connecting with voters. She has been partnering with her local chapter of Indivisible, a liberal grass-roots organization, to hold Zoom fundraising raffles that bring in hundreds of dollars at a time.
The pandemic-appropriate prizes include baskets of toilet paper called “bouquets” as well as “survival baskets” stuffed with toilet paper, wine, coffee and cleaning products. The prizes are awarded randomly to people who have recently donated to Knecht’s campaign on the liberal fundraising site ActBlue.
“The tone of our campaign has changed to more empathetic, because we know that not just the community at large but even our own volunteers are dealing with this virus in their own lives,” Knecht said.
Since many of her prospective voters in the Phoenix suburbs are elderly, she has plans to offer them the services of her adult children who have been living with her during the pandemic. “I am going to suggest that if older people need tech support, reach out to our campaign and one of our Gen-Z’ers can do it,” she said.
For Patricia Thomas, an Indivisible activist in the west Phoenix area, the number of nightly Zoom call invitations can become overwhelming. “The biggest problem I’m running into is having so many things to join,” she said.
That’s partly because there is hardly a political operation in America that has not announced a commitment to video conferencing as a way of keeping the human connection going, making the online engagement exhausting at times.
“Our philosophy is we keep going no matter what,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Justice Democrats, who has been hosting “live-stream town hall discussions.” “We are focusing on the things we can control.”
The Trump campaign has been particularly aggressive on this front after switching to an all-digital campaign in March. Most of its targeted states have more than a dozen “MAGA meetups” scheduled at any one time, with occasional special appearances by surrogates like the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.
Trump operatives say their activity is at an intensity level normally reserved for a campaign’s closing weeks.
“We are having field operation output at ‘final 30 days’ levels now,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “The whole campaign from the beginning — from five years ago — has been built on data, so we were much better equipped to pivot to an exclusively online campaign than anyone else.”
For Democrats looking to flip the U.S. Senate blue, there was less of a ramp-up period. Mark Kelly, a Democrat and former astronaut running for a Republican-held seat in Arizona, has taken to giving talks on Instagram about what he learned in space about living in isolation.
He has also read a bedtime story to kids with his twin brother, who lived in the International Space Station.
That practice of reading stories online has been picked up by other political figures as well. Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., the state’s fourth-largest city, has taken to reading a new children’s book every night, pulling a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, views on Facebook and Twitter.
“I’d like to dedicate it to my friend Katie,” he said before introducing “The Duckling Gets a Cookie” by Mo Willemson Friday night. “Katie really likes cookies, and this is a special one for her.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, has learned to stack his Zoom meetings one after another on the sun porch, flitting between county Democratic gatherings, small-business leaders, fundraising events and staff calls. When the Internet goes down, taking his Zoom and Google Hangouts with it, he shifts to FaceTime to keep gripping and grinning from a distance.
“I can both cover a lot more geography quicker and engage people in a very meaningful dialogue,” he said of his new life on the digital campaign trail, praising the technology’s ability to put questions in a queue. “If I am standing in a courthouse room addressing 40, 50, 60 people, it is a little harder to get to everyone’s question.”
But for many politicians, firing up audiences and plunging into crowds is the heart of political life, and this period of isolation feels disturbingly impersonal. Cunningham, for one, will be happy to get off the porch.
“I certainly love to travel and see people in person,” he said. “I miss that tremendously.”