Rallies, canvassing, conventions: The coronavirus crisis is disrupting cherished American campaign traditions, forcing them online and prompting Donald Trump and Joe Biden to rethink strategy ahead of an election whose results may take days to process.
Forget the breathless pacing of typical US presidential election campaigns. This year will be different, experts say, although the impact — if any — on the outcome of the race remains unclear.
The Democratic Party, which boasted about building one of the most expansive campaign infrastructures ever, is being forced to retool for the coronavirus era.
“Candidates could well be changing their strategies as events unfold,” political science professor John Brehm of the University of Chicago told AFP Wednesday.
But what specific impact the pandemic will have on this year’s race, “nobody knows.”
It is also too early to tell whether the ongoing pandemic, which has upended all aspects of American life, permanently alters the election process.
But it is leaving a dramatic mark on 2020 in multiple ways. Here are some of them:
– Reduced campaign rallies –
Pre-election summer is prime US campaign season, traditionally a time for honing political messaging at packed rallies or huddling with voters in diners.
By late June of 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton were already filling arenas. On July 5 the Democratic nominee took the stage with president Barack Obama for a barn burner of a rally in Charlotte.
Trump, the master of spectacle, has already held multiple crowded events including a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where most supporters did not wear masks or practice social distancing.
It remains to be seen if he repeats such events, particularly if health conditions on the ground do not improve. His campaign has not announced any upcoming rallies.
Biden, who acknowledged the non-traditional aspects of this year’s campaign, dropped a bombshell Tuesday by saying he would not host large rallies due to pandemic concerns.
That could change, but the goal is to campaign in a way that models appropriate safe behavior.
“We’re working closely with public health experts to ensure that our campaign operates in a safe and responsible manner,” campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told AFP.
“We’ll continue to use every tool available to underscore the clear contrast between Donald Trump’s slow and erratic response to COVID-19… and the strong and steady leadership Vice President Biden would provide.”
– Grassroots activism –
That may well include in-person get-out-the-vote efforts, a campaign mainstay that has proven to drive turnout in recent elections.
While virus outbreaks may dampen enthusiasm for attending mass rallies, smaller engagements like door-knock missions in battleground states where turnout is key could still be used safely, provided masks are worn and social distancing is observed.
Online alternatives abound. Democratic group Organizing2020 says its volunteers are “making calls, sending texts, attending and hosting ‘virtual’ events, attending online training sessions,” and promoting voter registration.
– Virtual conventions –
The national nominating conventions ooze political Americana, but the typically rowdy four-day affairs are in jeopardy this year.
Trump is demanding a packed house for when he accepts his party’s nomination in late August in Jacksonville, Florida.
But the state is a virus hotspot today, and the city has mandated mask use in public, portending a possible clash with supporters who often oppose wearing them.
Biden will appear at the Democratic National Convention in mid-August. But the Milwaukee event will be largely virtual, raising the prospect of an awkwardly empty acceptance speech.
– Mail-in voting –
The pandemic has boosted the number of absentee ballot requests to historic highs in several local and state races this year, offering a prelude to the November presidential election.
Trump and many Republicans, whom Democrats accuse of voter suppression, are relentlessly fighting vote-by-mail efforts, with the president repeatedly making the unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting will lead to a “rigged” election.
Millions more absentee ballots mean it could take far longer to tally votes, and experts have warned the final results will likely not be known on election night November 3.
– Going online –
Taking campaigns online means loss of human engagement, a realm where Biden claims advantage. A curtailed rally schedule could add to the unfortunate optics.
But such changes will not be enough to overcome the effects of broader issues like the state of the economy or concerns about public health, Brehm predicted.
“On the surface, the campaigns could look different,” he said. “But I think the outcome is probably determined by factors totally outside a campaign’s control.”