CORONAVIRUS

Even before coronavirus, Ernst campaign was mobilizing online supporters

This year's election will see 'heavy shift' to digital platforms

Sen. Joni Ernst arrives at the Capitol on Jan. 27 in Washington, D.C., during the impeachment trial of President Donald
Sen. Joni Ernst arrives at the Capitol on Jan. 27 in Washington, D.C., during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. The Iowa Republican, who is seeking re-election this year, will be relying on a digital campaign, prompted in part by coronavirus restrictions on traditional campaign activities. (Associated Press)

The coronavirus has thrown a curveball into the typical Iowa style of face-to-face political campaigning and has candidates scrambling to overcome the limitations imposed by an opponent not on the ballot.

The virus and the lockdown it has caused caught many campaigns off-guard. At least for the time being, there are no more coffees with supporters, in-person rallies or county fairs. Parades, another campaign staple, also may be halted this summer.

However, the campaign playing field was changing before the coronavirus. The online presence of campaigns has been growing every election cycle, giving people opportunities to receive email from the candidate, to sign-up for events and to volunteer.

There is a “heavy shift” to digital platforms for both advertising and traditional campaign activities, according to Brian Dumas of Quad Cities-based Victory Enterprises, which works with Republican candidates but is not involved in this year’s Iowa Senate race.

“In the past, you would have a traditional campaign headquarters where you’d have 20 to 30 volunteers making calls or commuting to a town or neighborhood to door-knock,” Dumas said. “That’s being replaced by people doing it from the comfort of home. They’re organizing friends and family, organizing their own digital Rolodex.”

That’s not new, Dumas said, “but we’re going to see a lot more of that.”

For U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s campaign, the digital shift started BC — before coronavirus — according to her campaign manager, Sam Pritchard.

“Rather than throwing out playbooks or starting over as many campaigns might have to do,” he said, JoniHQ.com was built to “fully utilize Joni’s grassroots network online in an increasingly digital age.”

Ernst will face the winner of the June 2 Democratic primary in the November general election.

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Ernst’s campaign website, Pritchard said, will allow the Republican’s supporters to sign up or lead opportunities to help re-elect Ernst.

It will return added value “at a time when traditional campaign techniques are limited due to COVID-19,” he said.

Dumas said that’s a natural progression from earlier campaign online platforms.

“Look, people run their lives from their phones,” he said. “This give people more freedom to do it on their own time and manner.”

The online presence doesn’t replace a traditional campaign and won’t go away when the coronavirus threat is over, Pritchard said.

“This campaign tool allows folks to participate when it works for them,” he said. “Iowans are busy with work, families and so on. JoniHQ meets folks where they are and allows them to get involved — and to encourage their friends, family and neighbors to get involved — when it works for their schedule.”

That will be an important element of campaigns this year because, despite the coronavirus, many activists want to be involved in campaigns, said Norm Sterzenbach of GPS Impact, who has worked for numerous Democratic campaigns.

“Volunteers want to feel a part of the campaign, they want to be invested in a campaign,” Sterzenbach said.

However, if volunteers can’t go out and do the campaign activities they normally do, they may feel disconnected and may miss the social aspect of a campaign.

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“The desire to be involved is still there, so the challenge for campaigns then is to give them the tools to engage,” Sterzenbach said.

That’s the goal of JoniHQ, Pritchard said. For volunteers, there’s a leaderboard so they can see who’s making the most phone calls, contacting the most voters, which often is a friendly competition among volunteers and field staff.

JoniHQ also invites people to join various affinity groups — Vets for Joni, Young Professionals for Joni, Bikers for Joni or Small Business for Joni.

It’s not all political, Pritchard added. There’s also a way to honor coronavirus heroes with a phone call or letter from the senator.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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