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OPINION

Coronavirus attacks essence of campaigning

JACK OHMAN/WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

By JOE TRIPPI | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 13, 2020

As the coronavirus spread to over 40 states, and as the number of Americans infected increased, two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination were hopscotching across the country on airplanes carrying hundreds of people: the candidates, exhausted staffers and journalists covering the politicians’ every move. These ensembles often traveled to multiple states on a single day, from one crowded event to another, in an effort to win delegates, who will then gather at a national convention in just a few months.

What could possibly go wrong?

It’s hard to imagine a worse activity to undertake during a pandemic than a presidential campaign. Combating the virus demands social distancing, but a campaign demands social contact — constantly. The more of it, the better. That ethos is changing fast, however: On Tuesday night, both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called off primary-night campaign rallies “out of concern for public health and safety,” as the Sanders camp put it. The Democratic Party moved its Sunday debate from Phoenix to Washington and plans to hold it without an audience, and both the Biden and Sanders camps have told staffers to work from home and ended door-to-door canvassing. After defiantly announcing a “Catholics for Trump” rally in Milwaukee, President Donald Trump’s campaign pulled the plug on it — and the president also canceled a trip to Nevada and Colorado.

If the virus continues its current trajectory, the candidates may find themselves conducting the first “no touch” campaign in American history — one in which baby-kissing is unthinkable, “virtual” rallies replace raucous crowds and the conventions become only-for-TV events. Trump seems more likely to resist this path, out of either stubbornness or ignorance, but even if just the Democrats modify their behavior, it would be a remarkable spectacle that could even affect which candidate wins in November.

Sanders, Biden and Trump are all in their 70s, so people rightly wondered whether they were at risk of catching the virus on the campaign trail. On CNN’s “State of the Union” last weekend, Sanders — who, despite getting trounced in Tuesday’s primaries, says he will continue his campaign — suggested that he might have avoided crowds “in the best of all possible worlds, maybe.” But at that point, he said he’d be running “as hard as we can.”

In fact, protecting the candidates is the relatively easy part. Presidential campaign staffs are quite adept at social distancing; they do it all the time when they want to keep their candidate from the press, for example. They can use similar methods at public events: Have their candidate enter through a side door, approach a podium from behind the stage, speak to a room full of 1,000 people (or an arena of 15,000), from a safe distance, and then leave to thundering applause without ever coming within a few feet of anyone.

It’s the crowds that are most at risk in this scenario, and not just from other audience members. Few understand the enormous number of people that a presidential campaign — whether during a primary race or a general election — puts in motion every time the candidate travels.

First there are the advance teams. Those crowds aren’t spontaneous, after all. An advance team that assembled a crowd and managed an event for a candidate in Seattle last week may be in Miami building the next crowd this week. Unlike the candidates, advance teams don’t have the option of not interacting with people. From scouting locations, working with local law enforcement to organizing volunteers working the event, it’s just not possible to build a crowd without interacting with a lot of people.

Then there are the journalists who wander into the audience and ask all those questions (“Why are you for Bernie?” “Why Trump?”), then get back on the campaign plane to ask similar questions, in a new crowd, in a new city.

In retrospect, it seems almost insane: Before Tuesday’s primaries, the Democratic campaigns and the press were shuttling among Missouri, Michigan and the state of Washington, which has seen the largest number of people testing positive for the coronavirus and the largest number of deaths in the United States. Then they were off to Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Illinois. It’s not just the travel itself: It’s the pace of it, the range, the close quarters on planes and in those rooms and arenas.

The recent cancellations are reassuring, and they suggest we’re about to enter a new world of campaigning. In the past few election cycles, campaigns have made use of “tele-town halls,” in which thousands of supporters can call in to a conference number and hear the candidate speak live to them. Such virtual town halls could replace rallies; Biden has announced his fundraising events will be virtual, too, for now.

The loss of door-to-door campaigning could be one of the bigger setbacks that the virus deals to the campaigns. Over the last decade, campaigns have seen a resurgence in engaged supporters volunteering to knock on doors — and voters seem more receptive to appeals from neighbors and fellow citizens than they do to TV ads, which are increasingly viewed as propaganda. What’s more, getting out the vote is the mainstay of every campaign’s field organization: Volunteers go to polling places, check off the names of those who have voted and then drive to the houses of those who haven’t — even offering a ride to the polls. Volunteers can still call voters — from their own homes — but they won’t be offering anyone a ride. (And the system breaks down if volunteers can’t check those lists at polling sites.) If the crisis continues, the campaigns will have to reinvent field organizing and get-out-the-vote operations, though it’s hard to envision how.

A “no-touch” campaign would inevitably be one that’s more driven by expensive advertising. And satellite interviews with local TV news programs, already a staple of campaigns, will become even more important, possibly shifting the balance of power somewhat from cable news to local stations in key states.

Such a campaign will hurt some candidates more than others. Sanders’ days as a candidate are likely numbered, but he has relied on crowd events to demonstrate the energy and passion his message generates; it’s hard to imagine a substitute in a world where large assemblies are taboo. Which also raises the question of how Trump’s campaign will respond, given that its signature has been large rallies. Can this man possibly conduct a reelection campaign sans adoring crowds wearing MAGA hats? He is likely to view the long-term abandonment of these events as an implicit admission that his handling of the crisis is not, as he likes to say, “perfect.” So might he — despite last week’s display of caution — conclude he’d prefer to resume the kind of campaigning he enjoys so much?

He can try. But if the coronavirus continues to spread, and if public health officials urge Americans to avoid crowds, even White House propaganda may not be enough to prevent Republicans from grasping reality. Trump may face the prospect of his supporters staying home and watching on TV as he speaks to smaller and smaller crowds — a potentially humiliating spectacle.

Democrats and Republicans might also have to scrap their national conventions as we know them. We’ve already seen several Republican elected officials who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February choose to self-quarantine because of contact with an attendee who tested positive for the coronavirus. Some of those same officials also had contact with Trump before they isolated themselves. This worry and confusion arose from an event that’s tiny relative to a party convention.

For years, both party conventions have been little more than partisan TV shows; the coronavirus could offer an opportunity finally to admit this fact. There is no reason to have delegates travel during a health crisis to be props in a party telethon. The parties can produce one night of live speeches and videos, and the next night air the nominee’s acceptance speech and the unveiling (or, in the Republicans’ case, the re-unveiling) of the vice-presidential nominee. For a while, it looked as if a brokered Democratic convention might be a possibility. That’s not going to happen, so there’s no need to plan secure ways for state delegations to caucus and vote on multiple ballots without being in the same large room.

With luck, the coronavirus will abate by Election Day in November. If not, there will be no easy way to handle the possibly hundreds of thousands of voters who could be ill or quarantined. As a contingency, state legislatures should change laws for absentee ballots, making them far easier to cast. The virus doesn’t know red from blue, so this should be a bipartisan issue.

No one wants to see any of this occur. But the coronavirus is disrupting global supply chains, upending stock markets and spurring nations to effectively lock down their populations. It would be sheer hubris to think that, amid such chaos, the American presidential campaign is somehow immune.

Joe Trippi has worked for several Democratic presidential campaigns.

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