Few people want to hear from a political campaign during a pandemic. But that’s not stopping some candidates’ backers and activists from sounding off — albeit in a different tone from what they would use in normal times.
“It is dead. Dead. We’re not raising a plug nickel,” said John Thomas, a strategist who is advising 15 House Republican candidates in California and a dozen other states. “A lot of campaigns are going to live or die on the resources that they brought into the race” before the coronavirus spread.
Democratic fundraiser Wade Randlett agreed that while the presidential and Senate campaigns will be amply funded, the budgets will be tighter for House races, “for both Republicans and Democrats.”
That means a lot of House contests will be frozen in place at least until stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. It will be hard for a candidate to climb in the polls when there is little money coming in to buy advertising, no opportunities to interact in person with voters and volunteers are forbidden from canvassing door-to-door.
And while Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden has held a couple of online fundraisers, even his supporters concede that it is hard for one of the former vice president’s strengths — his ability to project a connection to people — to shine on a Zoom call.
Besides, with the economy crashing, even people who still have jobs tend not to cut checks for politicians.
Strategists say the key is to strike the right tone as worried people are hunkered down at home.
“You have to be very sensitive talking to people right now because people are taking care of their families,” said Mathew Littman, executive director of Win the West, a pro-Biden super PAC that is aimed at winning Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas for the Democratic ticket in November.
Still, even in a disaster, there is opportunity. Win the West launched a digital ad last week that slammed Trump for his January assertion that the administration had the virus “totally under control.”
‘We wanted to go forward now because people are frightened by the leadership they are seeing,” said Littman, a former Biden speechwriter. “They are being drafted into this fight because of that.”
America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, responded Friday with a fundraising email pitch asking for donations because the Democrats’ attempt to use “this serious public health crisis for political gain and to defame and malign President Trump is wrong.”
The tone is softer among some of the online-based groups that have formed in recent years. Those include the progressive outfits Indivisible and Swing Left, which is concentrating on flipping GOP-held congressional and legislative seats in 12 battleground states.
“We’re trying to meet people where they are now — and people are in a lot of different places,” said Swing Left’s chief political officer, Tori Taylor. “Some people are motivated by this moment and want to double down. Other people aren’t there.
“But sending out 20 fundraising emails in the middle of a pandemic isn’t meeting people where they are,” Taylor said.
So organizers are injecting a dose of emotional support in their requests for campaign help.
The Sunrise Movement, an environmental movement run by young climate activists, launched “the People’s Dialer” to connect its members with people over 50 who might feel isolated or need help during the pandemic.
“The People’s Dialer isn’t your typical phone bank — we aren’t advocating for a candidate or recruiting for an event,” reads the first line on the venture’s home page. “We are doing what we as a movement do best: talking to people.”
“A lot of people are feeling lonely now,” said Sunrise spokeswoman Sofie Karasek.
The People’s Dialer
With fear, confusion, & uncertainty taking up more space in our lives, sometimes the most revolutionary thing we can do is care for one-another
With this dialer, we can fight for someone we don’t know just by picking up the phonehttps://t.co/TKul0jEjN9
— Sunrise Movement (@sunrisemvmt) March 20, 2020
Swing Left created a “virtual organizing hub” for its 600,000 members, whom it’s pointing at building progressive support in battleground states. At the top of the site is a note that acknowledges the emotions of the moment.
“COVID-19 is disruptive, upsetting and creating a lot of uncertainty,” it says. “We encourage you to prioritize taking care of yourselves, loved ones and neighbors. If you’d also like to transform our government, below is a guide on how to do so safely.”
Indivisible, the left-leaning group with an estimated 2 million members nationally in roughly 5,000 chapters, including 200 in the Bay Area, says it’s also switching tactics.
It’s flooding Congress with emails instead of calls because staffers are working from home. The organization is able to move nimbly because, like Swing Left, it doesn’t have to pay rent on offices or execute campaigns that were planned months before the virus hit.
“We’re not having to carry out funded projects that don’t make sense in this moment,” said Indivisible co-founder Leah Greenberg.
Organizations that hoped to grab the national spotlight with major demonstrations have other problems. The Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March was planning to rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on June 20 to call attention to issues affecting the poor. Now the event will be held online.
The movement continues! On 6/20, the #PoorPeoplesCampaign goes digital w/ a mass online gathering to demand that 140 million poor & low-wealth people across the nation are heard. Our demands must be front & center in this critical election year! Join us: https://t.co/Vng8oPF2Sp! pic.twitter.com/qun7x8RJNa
— Poor People’s Campaign (@UniteThePoor) March 23, 2020
The Sunrise Movement is best known for its in-person events like a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Washington, D.C., office with New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But some of those are impossible to do now, including a three-day nationwide strike it was planning starting April 22 to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
So Sunrise is shifting gears, too. It has started “Sunrise School,” a four-hour online course to train people how to be activists in the age of coronavirus. Sunrise expected 600 people to enroll; 6,000 signed up. More tutorials are planned.
“We’re trying to grapple with this unique moment,” said Sunrise’s Karasek. “How do we plan actions in this moment that speak to this crisis, but are done in a responsible way?”