Months before the coronavirus wiped out jobs and put thousands in the hospital, people saw the need for better leadership in their communities and made the decision to run for public offices in the 2020 elections.
Then the pandemic hit.
Plans to canvass neighborhoods went down the drain, a campaign manager moved in with a candidate so they could continue the campaign in quarantine and almost all forms of campaigning moved online.
“Campaigning has always been a wonky process—you never really know what’s going to get voters out to the polls,” said Dominic Thompson, a rising IU senior majoring in law and public policy who is running for Monroe County Council. “Adding this new element of living in the age of coronavirus, it has completely upended any strategies we had.”
When the stay-at-home order began and the community was largely hunkered down, candidates strategized the best move to make.
“We decided to take a break to allow people to digest what was going on with the coronavirus and not put pressure on them to get out there and vote,” Thompson, a 21-year-old Democrat said.
Democrat Brandon Hood, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in District 9, said his campaign also stopped for a few weeks, thinking it would come across as rude or opportunistic to campaign during a time of crisis. His campaign manager, Glitz Litzenberg, moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Hood's house to manage the campaign in the uncertain time, and he's staying until the campaign is over.
But in the past month, candidates have tried to increase their presence in the community.
Phone calls and social media have been the main strategies candidates have been using to reach voters. In addition to using online avenues, John Zody, a Democrat running for the Indiana State Senate, has also been using texting and mailers. If you drive by Republican Carl Lamb’s law office, yard signs make it clear he is running for Monroe County circuit court judge.
“We’re doing what we can and we’re certainly trying to do what’s best for people’s health,” Zody said.
In addition to campaigning, Thompson uses time on the phone with voters to inform people about how to vote by mail. He has heard from more people who are excited about voting than people who are feeling reluctant.
“Our number one job is to tell voters that they have unlimited access to mail-in ballots this year, which is not something that Indiana has historically done,” he said.
Hood and Lamb said there are some positives to campaigning exclusively online. Candidates don’t have to walk miles upon miles going door to door.
But Hood said he much prefers face-to-face interaction than campaigning online. He isn’t sure which way people are leaning with their votes when he isn’t interacting with them regularly.
“It’s hard to really gauge because I’m not really around people,” he said. “I can only put stuff out there.”
Lamb said the inability to talk to people in person has especially hurt his campaign’s ability to fundraise. Hood’s campaign has suffered from this as well.
“If we do win the primary, we’re not going to be going in with gold on our boots,” Hood said.
Thompson said he participated in a debate via Zoom on Monday night led by the Monroe County West Side Democratic Collaborative for Democratic candidates. Zody has done solo Facebook Live “town halls” to answer voters’ questions and has talked to various political IU student groups via Zoom.
Hood said he may organize a Facebook Live informal discussion with the other U.S. House of Representatives District 9 Democratic candidates because no local organization has done it yet.
“I don’t want this to become some campaign or vote where people are in the ballot box and they’re just like, ‘oh that name sounds cooler than that name,'” Hood said. “We want people to be informed.”
For Lamb, campaigning and keeping up his work as an attorney has made him a “Zoom expert.” For Thompson, the experience is a valuable lesson on how future campaigns might play out if there are more crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that future campaigns really have to be prepared for the reality of campaigning during a public health crisis,” Thompson said. “There is a reality that you could be campaigning from your cell phone rather than going door to door.”