ELECTION 2020: How Local Campaigns are Adapting to Politics in the Age of COVID-19

Last month, both the Wilton Republican Town Committee (RTC) and the Wilton Democratic Town Committee (DTC) participated in virtual conventions to nominate the candidates that they wanted on the ballots for the primaries and in some races, for the general election this November.

After some relatively smooth Zoom conferences, the candidates were chosen and the real campaign season began. However, with the ongoing pandemic looming over the foreseeable future, the campaigns are being forced to replace typical campaign tactics with imaginative new strategies.

What’s more, the candidates and their supporters will have to consider how COVID-19 will impact shaping policy and helping the community as the election season progresses.

Under pre-COVID circumstances, around this time of year political operatives typically would be in the early stages of strategizing campaign events and planning out the next several months.

“We would normally be coming together and putting together a plan for our volunteers to go out door-knocking for our different campaigns, planning meet-and-greets, Georgetown day, the Wilton sidewalk sale day, Fourth of July, in-person coffees, even Halloween. Unfortunately, most, if not all of them are going to be canceled,” Vicki Rossi, Vice-Chair, Co-Campaign and Co-Fundraising Chair of the DTC, said.  

Considering the risk of such gatherings for the foreseeable future, candidates and campaign managers are brainstorming viable alternatives that are safe for everyone involved.

Knocking on doors is an integral part of any local election. But can candidates and volunteers go door-to-door during a pandemic?

Rossi asks this question as well: “Would people feel comfortable with someone coming to their doors? Would they open it? I don’t think so, at this point. I think people are scared, and we have to be respectful of that.”

That realization presents a major setback to most candidates.

Kim Healy, a Wilton resident and first-time candidate running for the state senate seat in the 26th district, knows just how important meeting voters that way would have been. “People are talking about doing door knocking [later in the summer]. I don’t know how that’s going to work but I really hope it’s possible because that’s what I was really looking forward to.”

That sentiment is echoed by Stephanie Thomas, who is running for a state house seat in the 143rd district. She says it’s not just about getting her face in front of voters–it’s also about learning what potential constituents need.

“I love door-knocking, and since I filed in January I’ve been waiting for May which is when I thought I could get out and knock on doors. The reason I love it is because it’s the only chance you really have in life to get out and talk to so many different types of people and find out… what their issues and concerns are,” Thomas said. “I’ve been gearing up for that, so when COVID-19 hit, I felt a little lost. I was like, ‘What do I do now?’”

Fortunately for these candidates, they live in a time when there is a myriad of ways to connect with people without being face-to-face, and, Thomas said, the ultimate goal remains the same. “Door knocking was always to hear from people, which hasn’t changed at all. I’m still going to do that, try to hear from as many different people as possible, just my tactics have changed. That gives me great comfort.”

Wilton RTC Chris Lineberger, has an approach to these concerns that cuts to the chase:   “If you’re a traditional door knocker you’re going to have to change your game up”, he remarks. 

The candidate his party is running against Thomas for the 143rd district seat is Patrizia Zucaro, a newcomer to the political game who is playing from the same playbook as Lineberger. “No one should go into an election with a fixed strategy,” she said, adding, “This campaign season is like any other in the sense that we must be sensitive to residents’ evolving concerns and alert to changes in circumstances.”

Campaigns have become increasingly digital over the past decade, setting a welcome precedent for how to continue campaigning remotely.

There was a move to have digital marketing campaigns before the virus so I think this is just accelerating that need,” Lineberger explained. “You’re not going to survive in this day and age unless you have an online presence.”

So what will digital campaigning look like? “Some of the meetings I’ve had have been on the phone and it’s dead silence which is kind of weird. Zoom has been great. At least you see people’s facial expressions and you can kind of ‘read the room’,” Healy said.

The DTC and RTC are asking themselves this question as well.

“I think that there are plans in the works for all sorts of virtual get-togethers. We’re going to have to use our imagination and do some virtual coffee,” Rossi explained.

Some candidates are finding a silver lining in this process.

“It actually has given me an opportunity to take the time to think about each individual voter and what makes sense for them. There are some people for whom the telephone makes perfect sense, but for other people, it might be better to reach them via a virtual event,” Thomas noted.

Voters Need to Get Engaged Themselves

So how does this impact the voter’s experience? Lineberger predicts that “the onus is going to be a little bit more on the voters to go out and get the information [online] to make their decisions, but we are going to do what we can to use technology and what communication means we have to push that content out to voters as well.”

All the candidates agree the best place to find information about them and their campaigns is via their websites.

“A lot of people go to social media but it’s not a good forum for lengthy information like platform, issues, even background. Also, on websites, you update your data more often,” Thomas said.

But could a shift to digital campaigning discourage voters from staying informed? It’s a concern Lineberger acknowledged having. “I hope people continue to be engaged with the process, it’s important. We hope this doesn’t deter people from learning as much about the candidates as they can and still participating because every vote does count.”

Safety First

Everyone agreed that the safety of the candidates, volunteers, and the people of Wilton is the priority.

“We wouldn’t do anything that would make anybody uncomfortable. We want to make sure people feel safe and respected. We’re always keeping in mind Gov. Lamont’s guidelines,” Rossi said.

Respecting individuals’ boundaries and comfort zones will be essential while campaigning.  “The health and safety of everyone is the priority, especially frontline workers,” Healy maintained. “Everyone has a different threshold for what they’re willing to tolerate and we’ll have to meet them there.” 

Right now, candidates are focused more on the wellbeing of their communities than on campaign strategy. Will Haskell, the current state senator for the 26th district, said running for reelection is taking a back seat.

“To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about politics lately. I think that the best thing I can do for my re-election campaign is to do really strong work as a State Senator. The one exception is that about a dozen of our summer campaign interns have volunteered to help me with check-in calls to local seniors who live alone. With their help, we’ve called about 3,000 households to talk about testing locations, reopening phases, and how to safely get groceries and prescriptions,” Haskell said.

Healy has her priorities elsewhere too, “…just trying to feel people out, make sure they’re okay. We’ve been calling people just to check in and see if they need anything. I don’t know if anyone is really thinking about the campaign.”

One of the unknowns is how the virus will impact actual voter turnout, at the August primaries, or even in November for the general election. Gov. Ned Lamont recently signed an executive order allowing unconditional absentee voting for the primaries, but it’s an accommodation that hasn’t yet been extended to November. 

But all the candidates and advisors agree, everyone is in the same boat, and no one is an expert on this new political normal. The only ‘sure thing’ is that campaign season 2020 will be a unique experience for both politicians and voters, requiring everyone to have an open mind and patience.

“We are all going through this together for the first time and while we may not all have the answers, if the residents are informed I believe that will ease concerns and unify us as a community,” Zucaro said.

No matter what, the candidates know what used to be absolute in the world of political campaigns is no more, as Haskell points out.

“I think voters understand that there is no simple fix to what we’re experiencing. We have a long road of rebuilding ahead of us, and it is going to require compromise and hard work from our elected leaders at every level. It’s going to require a government that is honest, accessible, and always driven by science.”