Laurie TriegerPhoto by Todd Cooper

Virtual Reality

Social distancing measures have changed how political campaigns operate

There’s an episode of the cartoon King of the Hill in which Hank Hill, an honest propane salesman in Texas, shakes hands with the then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. Hill’s world is turned upside down when he discovers Bush has a limp handshake. This devastates Hill’s Republican worldview because he can only vote for someone with a strong, firm handshake, so he considers not voting at all in the 2000 general election.  

Genius satirist Mike Judge’s cartoon shows the importance of in-person meetings. They  have disappeared as a tool for election campaigns since gatherings are prohibited and  governments try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Candidates running for offices from secretary of state to local races are finding ways to adjust to this new normal. 

“The most effective way to get someone’s votes is to do face to face,” says Jillian Schoene, executive director of Emerge Oregon, which encourages and trains progressive women for political office. “Most of our women are running those grassroots campaigns, meeting people inside their home or at their doorstep.” 

Schoene adds that most women who’ve trained at Emerge rely on grassroots strategies, which lead to small but meaningful donations “that fuel the vast majority of women’s campaigns for office.” 

But those two elements have disappeared, she says, and now candidates are shifting to the online world, where they rely on apps like Zoom to have group chats and host virtual coffee meetings. The digital world is still effective, but not as much as the real world. 

Schoene says health and safety are the most important things, but the May election isn’t far away. So she says if people can, they should reach out to candidates and find a way to volunteer digitally because “our elections do matter, leadership matters.” 

Portland-area state Sen. Mark Hass is running for secretary of state, and he says he’s experienced how important in-person contact is when talking with voters. He’s had people come up to him who remember him from the first time he ran for the Oregon House of Representatives 20 years ago. 

“They say, ‘I remember you came to my doorstep; you have my vote forever,’” he says.  

Hass says it’s hard to do a statewide canvass plan, but he says “retail politics,” a term used to describe attending events to gain support from local voters, is off the table due to social distancing.

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State Sen. Mark Hass

But Hass’ campaign manager, Nicholas Salter, says the campaign  plans to use its  pool of younger volunteers who are  out in the field to deliver groceries and prescriptions to older voters who are self-isolating because of their vulnerability to COVID-19. 

Social distancing has caused Laurie Trieger to re-examine how she campaigns for the south Eugene seat on the Lane County Board of County Commissioners. She says her campaign developed various scenarios — none of which took into consideration a global pandemic — when planning out how many doors to knock on and how much money to raise. 

“You start getting volunteers who want to door knock,” she says about this part of the campaign timeline. “Before this public health crisis, we were gearing up for teams of anywhere from six to 15 volunteers door knocking for the campaign.” 

 The campaign’s goal was knocking on about 15,000 doors. That’s impossible now, she says, since the campaign only logged 2,500 doors, which Trieger did herself since starting her campaign in 2019.

“The last two months before an election is when that voter contact work really ramps up, and it’s all in person,” she says, listing neighborhood meetings and forums like City Club of Eugene.  

Phone and text banking is used to “get out the vote,” she says, but the campaign is wondering whether now is the time to rely on that tool. Her campaign is using weekly Facebook Live broadcasts to talk about the issues with voters. 

She’s also using peer-to-peer campaigning, which is recruiting volunteers to reach out digitally to neighbors and friends who live in the south Eugene district. She says it’s sort of like going door-to-door: The volunteers receive the talking points and images but can email or message in their own words about why they support Trieger. 

The economy has been put to a halt during the pandemic and so has Trieger’s fundraising — like all candidates’. It’s harder to ask supporters for money, she says. Although her campaign receives grassroots amounts of contributions — which range from $25 to $100 — she says financial instability has people on edge. 

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t change Trieger’s platform, but it does force her campaign to run counter to what she’s learned after all of her years of experience on campaigns: The fundamentals are that nothing replaces human contact.  

“This is a total new condition to be campaigning,” she says. “It’s a manifestation of the existential crisis of this pandemic, which is that we’re missing the opportunity to just look each other in the eye and have a conversation.”