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Making the Internet Connection While Campaigning During a Pandemic

Toilet paper is an unusual issue for the campaign trail, but candidates are rolling with the times. When Denver’s stay-at-home order interrupted her bid for the Colorado Senate, Democrat Maria Orms did what she does best: she organized her neighbors.

(CN) – Toilet paper is an unusual issue for the campaign trail, but candidates are rolling with the times. When Denver’s stay-at-home order interrupted her bid for the Colorado Senate, Democrat Maria Orms did what she does best: she organized her neighbors.

The Air Force veteran stepped into politics to protest fracking operations near her home. Now, instead of organizing the opposition to residential oil and gas production, Orms is reaching out to help her community online. Within two weeks, her Facebook group “Help Needed in Denver Metro COVID-19” surpassed 10,000 members.

When her southeastern Denver neighbors in District 31 are ready to talk issues again, she will be ready to broach environmental policy and teacher pay. For now, Orms said, “I’m driving to give people toilet paper and baby food and help with the rent.”

Around the country, social-distancing measures aimed to slow the spread of the coronavirus contagion have also halted conventional campaigning during peak primary season. No longer can candidates break selfie records or pack supporters into large stadiums.

State party organizers acted on the fly to eliminate the need for in-person assemblies.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to reporters about coronavirus Thursday March 12, 2020, in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Colorado Democratic Party is collecting YouTube speeches from Senate and congressional candidates ahead of its June primary. Last month, county parties rescheduled their assemblies and conventions as e-meetings or used mail-in ballot systems.

In Colorado’s northern Weld County, the Republican Party held its first drive-through assembly in a high school parking lot.

“Our top priority is to ensure critical party business moves forward, but that it does so in a safe and healthy way,” said Kristi Burton Brown, vice-chair of the Colorado Republican Party.

For candidates, Brown advised, “Send out emails, post videos of yourself addressing certain issues, strengthen your social media presence—do all these things that campaigns often don't have the time to do because they are out at events and knocking on doors.”

This is not how Republican Charlie Winn imagined campaigning for Colorado’s 2nd District. The liberal enclave of Boulder hasn’t had an elephant in the room since 1975.

As a former Navy flight surgeon and civilian radiologist, Winn said he cares about health care, the environment and education, but his biggest issue is partisanship.

Winn’s community at the base of the Rocky Mountains north of Denver “has a single-party system and they’re not just creating their own narrative, they’re creating my narrative too. People are constantly telling me what a conservative is, but they haven’t talked to a single one.”

He added: “When you start calling people names, you can’t have a substantive discussion on how to address the issues.”

It’s a pitch he planned to make person-to-person, and now must figure out how to make it online.

Nevertheless, this is not the time for viral gimmicks. Even if extreme personalities seem to generate web traffic, some consultants counter that candidates should focus on content that reflects who they are — both online and in real life.

“There's a tendency for candidates to think we have to go the most outrageous to get attention and in order to rev up the base,’” said Washington-based Republican strategist Liz Mair. “Now, as before, the most important thing is that candidates are making sure that they are authentically depicting themselves.”

She added, “You don't want your campaign to be the story of the day. If your campaign is the story of the day, there's a real risk that information that could literally save your voters' lives isn't going to get to them.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With the U.S. Department of Labor recording uncharted numbers of unemployment, it’s hard for campaigns to ask for money and it’s hard for voters to give it.


“My name's on a lot of lists, and it is inconceivable to me that in the last week I have actually gotten fundraising calls from candidates who act like there's nothing going on, like they’re just working from a script,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and former Democratic political consultant.

Ceisler said he’s forgoing his salary right now at his Pennsylvania-based firm Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy.

“I got a call from a candidate in the western part of the country, and I told him in a very nice way, ‘Look you're calling me for money right now and I think it's highly inappropriate,’” Ceisler said. “Maybe it's not as bad where you live, but it's bad here in Philadelphia.”

Some candidates say they’re still receiving unsolicited donations, but that asking for money outright sends the wrong message.

“I'm calling people and checking in on how they're doing and hearing about their issues, but I'm not asking folks for money at this time,” said James Iacino, a Democrat running to represent Colorado’s 3rd District in the U.S. Congress.

Republican Scott Tipton currently represents the battleground district, which spans 52,000 square miles along the western border of Colorado,

Instead of driving from county to county, Iacino now spends his day phoning constituents and hosting virtual townhalls on the weekends. With patchy internet access across rural Colorado, video streaming isn’t always possible for Iacino, but he said dozens of voters are tuning in to talk issues worsened by the pandemic: healthcare, economic mobility and small business growth.

With limited airtime and tight financial resources, the environment seems to favor incumbents — at least those who are performing well under pressure, offering constituents hope and economic aid.

“Take notes,” public affairs consultant Ceisler said. “This is where you really get to see who are the leaders and who can step up, and who are the pretenders and the fakers.”

In addition to testing his leadership, some critics wonder how President Donald Trump will campaign without the rallies.

According to Pew Research Center analysis published March 26, Trump’s approval rating, at 45%, has never been higher. Still, Morning Consult’s weekly election pulse gave former Vice President Joe Biden a hefty lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and both Democratic candidates a slight edge over the president.

“This will have a negative impact of President Trump, who loves his rallies and uses them for a variety of purposes,” said Michael Genovese, president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “They energize him and motivate the base. Now that they are gone, what does Team Trump do?”

Whether that gives the Democratic nominee an advantage remains to be seen.

“The challenger can stand on the sidelines throwing rocks at the president, hoping it resonates with a public that is scared, anxious and worried about the direction of the country,” Genovese said.

Assuming the Democratic Party nominates Biden, he added, “if the president does not get a handle on the crisis, it might not matter very much what Biden does — he will get a lot of votes from discontented Americans.”

For now, people are more concerned with partnership over partisanship.

“In ordinary communities, this will temper down partisanship and animosity, this is not a time when ordinary people engage in political warfare,” said Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Unfortunately, this hasn’t hit Washington, D.C., yet — you still see partisanship with decisions in Congress and the president is still attacking the media.”

He added: “If senators on both sides of the aisle are acting in a transparently partisan way, voters will punish them for it, and that’s a plus.”

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