Coronavirus Roils 2020 Race, Forcing a Virtual Campaign Season

(Bloomberg) --

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump are campaigning, just as the race for the presidency narrows to a few top candidates. And the alternatives will cost the candidates millions of dollars.

It’s an added challenge for all three campaigns. With the Democratic race down to two candidates -- and with Biden solidly in the lead -- interest in the contest would naturally shrink somewhat. Combine that with the pandemic’s overwhelming impact on the economy and daily life, getting voters’ attention is going to be difficult -- and expensive.

“It’s going to be a tearing up of the playbook,” said Teddy Goff, Barack Obama’s digital director in 2012 and a founding partner of Precision Strategies, a communications and digital agency.

The campaigns will have to reinvent long-planned tactics, finding new -- and likely more expensive -- ways to excite and motivate supporters and get attention from a news media consumed by virus coverage.

Getting Creative

Biden and Sanders, both extra vulnerable to the virus themselves given that they are in their late 70s, have reduced the amount of handshaking, baby holding and posing for photos that is expected in a traditional campaign. Trump, as the incumbent president with Secret Service protection, already is afforded a bit of physical distance from the public.

The Biden campaign said Thursday in a memo to staff that they could work remotely, and that the operation’s offices around the country would close to the public. The Sanders campaign also asked its staff to work from home and said it “will no longer hold large events or door-to-door canvasses, instead moving to digital formats and outreach wherever possible.”

The candidates will have to get creative with digital tools and buy a lot more advertising to maintain voter enthusiasm all while balancing totally reconfigured budgets, according to digital communications experts and political strategists.

Media buys are already the biggest expense for presidential campaigns. Sanders has spent $69.5 million on ads, including $48.5 million on broadcast and cable and $19.2 million on digital, according to Advertising Analytics. Biden’s campaign has spent $31 million, but is set to start spending more with ads that started running Thursday.

The campaigns will undoubtedly increase their advertising if they’re not getting media attention from rallies and town halls that would earn coverage. But that would ironically make the advertising even more expensive, since the rates are set by demand.

“Digital and television are now indisputably the site of most campaign activity,” said Joshua Darr, a professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. “The risk of holding rallies is just not worth it, I can’t imagine many headlines worse for a campaign than ‘Rally goers Sickened.’”

The campaigns can increase their advertising budgets with the savings they might realize from canceling cross-country travel in private jets. Events cost Sanders $5.8 million and Biden $3.6 million, while air travel has cost them $1.6 million and $2 million, respectively from the start of each campaign.

The Trump campaign, with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, will likely make the adjustment without too much financial pain. Biden, whose campaign struggled to raise money until just two weeks ago, will have to spend some time exhorting donors and hoping that a super political action committee that works independently on his behalf would spend on digital efforts and advertising.

No Audience, No Lists

Rallies and town halls don’t just give candidates adoring crowds and media attention. They also allow campaigns to build email and phone lists for later fund-raising appeals. As they enter the events, voters are usually asked to provide their contact information, which the campaigns will later use to ask for donations or for volunteer work.

Campaigns will now have to rely on the lists they’ve already built, or voter files from the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, to engage in text messaging and old fashioned phone calls in order to woo voters. Social media outreach will become even more aggressive. At the same time, however, fundraising might slow in the face of a global health crisis as political contributions aren’t priorities for voters.

“Major avenues of voter contact and voter enthusiasm are going to be closed off,” said Thomas Peters, founder and chief executive officer of RumbleUp, a texting company used by Republicans. “At the same time, campaigns are going to see their budget shrinking because it might get a lot harder for people to pitch in $25 when they are living paycheck to paycheck and are also trying to stock up on food.”

A reduction in small-dollar donations would have the biggest impact on the already-flagging Sanders campaign, which relies entirely on such contributions.

‘Virtual’ Campaigns

The first signs of adjustments on the campaign trail started popping up this week, but the expanded digital efforts haven’t yet materialized. Both Biden and Sanders canceled their Tuesday primary night rallies in Ohio, at the request of state officials wary of large gatherings. Instead, they delivered speeches from Philadelphia and Burlington, Vermont, where their campaigns are headquartered, with staff members as their only audience.

The Democratic debate on Sunday will be held at a television studio in Washington instead of a theater full of supporters in Phoenix. And the “spin room,” where campaign aides make their case to hundreds of reporters after the debate, won’t exist.

Biden also canceled voter events in Illinois and Florida, two states that hold primaries next Tuesday. His campaign said he would instead hold a “virtual town hall” with voters in Illinois on Friday.

“We’re also reimagining the format for the large crowd events,” Biden said in a speech delivered to reporters on Thursday, in which he outlined how he would handle the virus crisis if he were president.

Trump has begun to edge away from the huge rallies that he seems to relish as president and that helped him win election in 2016 .

He has no rallies on his public schedule. Campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox Business on Wednesday that the re-election effort was “taking it day by day. We are currently proceeding as normal.”

But since then, Trump has canceled a trip to Las Vegas to attend the Republican Jewish Coalition and postponed a Catholics for Trump event in Milwaukee, which was scheduled to be in a setting that holds more than 3,000 people.

“It’s going to be a very different actual experience from the more typical, follow-the-script organizing,” said Matt Compton, director of advocacy and engagement at the Democratic digital strategy firm Blue State Digital. “You’re not talking to people who are living their normal lives. You’re talking to voters who are going to be anxious.”

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Joe Biden on March 4.)

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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