ELECTION 2020

Pandemic challenges political campaigns

Candidates try different ways of reaching voters

Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Sept. 28 #x201c;Iowa Press#x201d; Senate debate a
Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Sept. 28 “Iowa Press” Senate debate at the Iowa PBS studios. (Photo from Iowa PBS)

DES MOINES — The news of President Donald Trump contracting COVID-19 placed a renewed focus on a serious challenge facing candidates in 2020: how to campaign responsibly during the pandemic while still reaching voters in an effort to win an election.

In the week leading up to his diagnosis, Trump participated in a constant stream of public events, including rallies in Minnesota and Ohio, the presidential debate in Ohio and an event outside the White House to announce his Supreme Court nominee.

With a Nov. 3 election looming and a pandemic hovering, campaigns must thread a needle: Having public events could put people’s health at risk, but avoiding public events could alienate voters and limit exposure to the voters.

“It’s an environment unlike any other election cycle we’ve seen,” said Donna Hoffman, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “How you navigate is really a good question for the campaigns.”

The pandemic puts stress on not just candidates, but on staff and volunteers, who in normal years pack into field offices to make phone calls and knock on voters’ doors to engage in direct conversation.

“We know personal contact is the best factor in terms of getting people to vote, but there’s going to be a limited amount of that,” Hoffman said.

Iowa’s high-stakes U.S. Senate race provides an example of different campaign paths taken during the pandemic.

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Republican incumbent Joni Ernst faces Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield in a race that polling has showed to be very close and could help determine which party emerges with a Senate majority.

Ernst’s campaign has continued to prioritize in-person campaign events — also during the pandemic, Ernst completed her annual 99-county tour of the state — while attempting to abide by social distancing guidelines. And the Ernst campaign is also door-knocking — again, while maintaining a safe social distance from voters, Ernst said.

Ernst said she has stressed safety, including mask-wearing, though she has been photographed at large Republican events not wearing a mask while interacting within 6 feet of people.

“I love to see people and I love to give them hugs and shake their hands,” Ernst said. “We’re a lot more cautious nowadays, and we’re wearing masks when we’re out in public, social distancing, and that’s hard. And I know it’s hard for a number of constituents as well.”

Ernst has made one significant change to her reelection campaign: she has scrapped her annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser, eliminating the roast portion, which included a meal and speeches. This year’s event will instead focus on the motorcycle ride that will span the entire state over multiple days.

And instead of serving as a campaign fundraiser, Ernst said this year’s event will benefit the Puppy Jake Foundation and Cedar Rapids Derecho Recovery Fund.

Greenfield held more online events early in the general election, but recently has started holding more public events with small numbers of people and media.

Greenfield said the campaign has conducted more than 250 events, both in-person and online, and that the events have included Iowans from all 99 counties. She said if elected, she plans to continue to hold virtual events.

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“Crisscrossing the state and meeting Iowans and shaking hands is my favorite thing to do. Listening to their stories, learning from them so that I can lead best as their next senator, is a highest priority,” Greenfield said. “We’ve certainly made the decision to follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines as best we can in this campaign. And we’ve been out traveling the state, and we’ll continue to travel the state.”

Greenfield’s campaign is not door-knocking, a spokeswoman said.

The national Republican Party’s campaign apparatus in Iowa has continued its door-knocking but at a social distance.

“So our folks will go up to the doors, knock or ring the doorbell, and then they’ll go back and stand at least 6 feet away,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Preya Samsundar. “They’ll be wearing masks, (protective equipment), and then they’ll have that conversation from a distance. And because most folks are at home, they typically answer the door. And then they’re OK with having that conversation with us.”

Samsundar said the RNC has continued to use online voter outreach and live video calls, and as a result has made about 2 million voter contacts so far.

For campaigns that eschew door-knocking, said Hoffman, the political scientist, there are other methods of reaching voters, including TV campaign ads. She said campaigns can also get creative and do things like sending handwritten post cards to voters.

“The name of the game isn’t to physically be in front of people necessarily,” Hoffman said, “but it’s to keep your name in front of people so when it’s time to vote they write your name.”

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed.

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