How to Canvass During a Pandemic

How to Canvass During a Pandemic

Progressive insurgents are reimagining their campaigns thanks to the coronavirus. 


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Rebecca Parson, like many progressive insurgents running for Congress, was hoping to ride a strong ground game to victory. Knocking on doors in Washington State’s 6th Congressional District, which ropes in most of the city of Tacoma, she was aiming to lay the groundwork to pull off an upset again Derek Kilmer, a centrist Democrat and deficit hawk.

And then, the novel coronavirus struck.

Parson, a democratic socialist, became one of the first candidates to make what turned out to be a gut-wrenching but prescient decision: On March 8, after consulting with medical professionals, she announced she was suspending all canvassing operations.

“We just wanted to be taking it really seriously, especially for people who may be at the doors,” Parson said. “The people of the district are the highest priority.”

Campaigns across the country—from those seeking the statehouse all the way to the White House—are entering unprecedented territory as the coronavirus rapidly upends society as we know it. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have canceled mass rallies. Louisiana has delayed its presidential primary. Meet-and-greet fundraisers and grip-and-grins are no more.

The stock market is crashing, perhaps imperiling Donald Trump’s reelection chances or, at the minimum, creating a greater longing for competent, sane leadership. Biden’s “return to normalcy” pitch is increasingly compelling, argued William Howell, a leading political scientist at the University of Chicago.

“It increases people’s appetite for competence and for a technocracy and for a restoration of basic operations coming from the administrative state,” Howell said. “It’s a critique of Trump’s general incompetence.”

Mark Longabaugh, a top strategist on Sanders’s 2016 campaign who didn’t end up working on the 2020 bid, said the effective end of rallies would damage Sanders further, since he is as a candidate who relies on drawing large, enthusiastic crowds.

“One of his fundamental political tools is the rally. That’s where he’s at his best. It creates great visuals and atmospherics and mobilizes his piece of the party,” Longabaugh said. “Biden I don’t think needs the venue that much. He’s much more comfortable with the photo-op.”

Leftist candidates down the ballot are less concerned about the coronavirus’s complicating their messaging—arguing that a pandemic is a sobering illustration of why we need universal health care and an active, interventionist government—than getting the message out in the first place. Parson has recalibrated, transitioning her spending from field organizing to digital, hoping Facebook ads, videos, online Q&As, and virtual town halls can fill the gap left by the sudden disappearance of a door-knocking operation.

Face-to-face contact, for unknown candidates in particular, has been a tried-and-true way of galvanizing support against entrenched incumbents. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez soared to victory on the strength of an enthusiastic and aggressive field operation. The rest of the Squad got to DC the same way. Friends and supporters hosted house parties. Volunteers knocked on doors in the rain and passed out palm cards at train stations and street fairs. Senior centers, now off limits, are typical venues for delivering stump speeches and shaking hands.

Parson, who has an August primary, is preparing for a new and unsettling status quo, with no real ability to talk to voters in person.

“It’s making us be a lot more creative, which is something insurgent campaigns have to do anyway when you have such low name recognition,” Parson said. “We’re taking our creativity on field and turning to digital.”

Luke Hayes, a former Obama operative now helming the congressional campaign of Jamaal Bowman, a progressive trying to unseat Eliot Engel in New York, is also navigating the coronavirus crisis in real time. Engel’s district includes the city of New Rochelle, which has emerged as ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak.

Phone banking—allowing volunteers to call and text voters remotely—has become a priority.

“We are training our canvassing volunteers on phone banking and texting as ways to engage with voters,” Hayes said. “This has certainly presented an unanticipated challenge to organizing. It is forcing us to think creatively about how we can continue to organize, even if we can’t do it in person as much as we’d like to.”

Not far from Engel’s Bronx and Westchester district, Suraj Patel is trying once more to unseat Manhattan Representative Carolyn Maloney. After garnering over 40 percent of the vote against Maloney in 2018, he is hoping to widen his coalition for the primary this June.

Over the past week, Patel has had to alter his entire approach to campaigning. On March 4, he organized a public health briefing on the coronavirus at Hunter College in Manhattan, bringing in a panel of four doctors to answer questions about the virus. Then, Hunter College, like most major colleges and universities in America, ended all in-person instruction and events of the like Patel had organized.

“We really pulled down all our public events. We are moving, at least for now, to much more remote contacting,” Patel said. “Phone banks are being done remotely, fundraisers had to be pulled down. We are doing virtual fundraisers and Google hangouts.”

An effort to hand out campaign-branded hand sanitizer ultimately didn’t materialize after ordering it, in a time of such high demand, proved impossible. And other means of voter contact, climbing tall apartment buildings to greet Democrats at their doors, may not happen for months.

By Saturday, Patel said he was caling back campaign operations entirely. “It’s just not an atmosphere for campaigning anymore.” He says he’s reorienting more resources into community support and turning calls to seniors into “check in” calls versus typical campaign scripts.

In New York, candidates for Congress and state legislative office are currently gathering signatures to get on the ballot. Patel has ended his petition-gathering operation, which required volunteers to knock on doors and stand in the streets asking for signatures from registered Democrats.

Other candidates and state lawmakers are now calling for New York to temporarily decrease or end petition signature requirements altogether. Such a practice, a ritual of local campaigns for decades, can’t be carried out during a pandemic.

Like the other challengers, Patel is hopeful he can still, somehow, find a way to pull off the upset, despite the loss of so many opportunities to win over voters.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “You can look at this as a unique opportunity to try new things.”

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