116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Taking advantage of technology and social media, political campaigns have become more sophisticated in using digital interaction as a replacement — or supplement — for traditional in-person events.
It’s a no-brainer that it’s easier to send a tweet or a social media message than walk for miles in July heat — or worse, rain. But this summer as more parades, fairs and festivals emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, you’re likely to find officeholders and candidates taking an old-school approach as they throw candy to kids along parade routes and hand out flyers to their voting-age parents.
“It’s just a wonderful way for people to connect with communities and be part of that community — if only for an afternoon or morning,” said former Speaker of the Iowa House Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake. As speaker and now as co-chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, she tells candidates that parades give them an “opportunity to see people when they’re in a good mood and everybody’s just having a fun day.”
In general, voters want to see the people who are asking for their votes, said state Rep. Ross Wilburn, who has walked and ridden a bike in parades as mayor of Iowa City, a state legislator from Ames and now chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.
Parades are a great way “to make real connections with voters, especially if you don’t have a lot of money or high name recognition,” he said.
Building that connection with voters is important in Iowa’s rural communities, where there are few elected Democrats, said Wilburn, who has been to several parades around the state this summer.
“It’s a great way for party leaders to meet Iowans, to remind Iowans that Democrats are everywhere,” he said.
That’s because retail politics will always matter, according to Brett Dinkins, a consultant with Victory Enterprises, which advises both Democratic and Republican candidates. The value of free exposure cannot be understated, “and constituents like to see their elected officials and candidates in action and interacting with the public.”
Busy summer after last year’s pause
In a state House district that includes parts of three counties — Jones, Jackson and Dubuque — Cascade Republican Steve Bradley said participating in parades last year would have been part of his strategy as a first-time candidate challenging a longtime incumbent “if not for COVID-19.”
Most parades and festivals in summer 2020 were canceled in the pandemic. Some groups, including the Linn County Democrats, still are limiting participation in in-person events due to the pandemic. Many others are returning to the parades, even though the next election isn’t until 2022.
Bradley is looking forward to the succession of county fairs to “meet a lot of people and ask them what’s important to them, to the district.”
Rep. Eric Gjerde, D-Cedar Rapids, has been to the Linn County Fair and the Ely firefighters’ pancake breakfast so far this summer. He agrees with Bradley that participation in those events is good for two-way communication.
“I think it’s important in the field that we’re in, you know, representative democracy, that I go to events and hear what is on people’s minds,” he said.
During the legislative session, Gjerde gets hundreds of emails and phone messages. This time of the year, with the annual session over, the pace is a bit slower and allows him to have conversations with voters, Gjerde added.
Participating in community celebrations gives officeholders an opportunity to hear from people other than the politically active while demonstrating their accessibility, said Melissa Deatsch, spokeswoman for Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford.
In politics, showing up matters
It’s hard to know whether that translates into votes, but Linn County Democratic Party Chairman Bret Nilles thinks the opposite could also be true.
“People might notice when you’re not there more than when you are,” he said. “You don’t want them asking, ‘How come I didn’t see you?’ versus them remembering that they shook your hand.”
Not attending can be seen as a snub and damage a candidate’s reputation with local leaders and voters, Dinkins said. “If a candidate won’t show up for the community, why should the community be expected to show up for the candidate on Election Day?”
Upmeyer doubts walking parades switches votes from one candidate to another, “but when you show up it certainly gives them a good feeling toward the candidate.”
Parade veterans have plenty of advice for candidates.
“Bring more water than you think you’ll need,” Wilburn said.
Some parades don’t allow participants to toss candy out of concerns over safety around a float. But if they do, “Don’t run out of candy,” said Upmeyer, a veteran of nearly 200 parades.
Bradley, a dentist, covers his bases with both candy and toothbrushes.
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