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Political Campaigns Are Going Virtual, But That's Not All Bad For Candidates — Or Voters

Brian Snyder
Pool Reuters via AP
Democratic elected officials, including former Georgia House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, deliver the keynote address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, together by video feed.

Political campaigning is a social endeavor. But like the rest of us, candidates have had to shift to virtual platforms to connect with voters and get their message heard.

Those Zoom rallies and town hall meetings actually seem to be working well for politicians, according to Illinois State University political scientist Kerri Milita.

“You might be surprised. Turnout at these virtual events has actually been--not quite on par with an in-person rally--but it's not nothing,” Milita said. “There have actually been sizable turnout. And what's actually been neat is there's been a particular rise in turnout amongst particular, what we would call, ‘marginalized voters.’”

That includes people with disabilities, those who lack access to transportation, and workers who can’t get time off. Milita said it also has made political campaigns more inclusive for the candidates themselves.

“It's not that the pandemic changed campaigns, it's that the pandemic kind of sped up the trajectory that campaigns were already on, which was to become more virtual,” she said. “Going virtual has a number of benefits for candidates. One is that it’s cheaper. The internet is this oddly level playing field. And what we started to see is very non-traditional candidates coming out of the woodwork to run for office.”

Door-to-door campaigning is still a factor in the lead-up to the November election, Milita said, though staffers are now being trained to wear masks, maintain a significant distance, and walk away from people’s doorsteps if they feel uncomfortable.

But some other tactics, like campaign literature and candidate endorsements, may go further this year than in previous election cycles.

“Things like endorsements never really went away. It was just, I think, the amount of attention that we paid to it went away,” Milita said. “In times like this, where there's more of an information deficit ... maybe we start going back to endorsements, as a way to help us figure out where candidates stand on the issues. But candidates still fill out questionnaires, saying what their stances are on the key issues of the day, they're still going to be debates--though they'll probably be virtual, or the podiums will be moved further apart without an audience.”

Ultimately, Milita said, voters should have plenty to go on when they cast their ballot on Nov. 3. The bigger concern is whether they vote at all.

“Political scientists and government officials alike are kind of concerned about what turnout is going to look like,” she said. “In-person turnout will almost certainly be down and [the states] vary in terms of how easy they make it to vote by mail or to do absentee ballots.”

In Illinois, Milita said efforts to promote the vote-by-mail option could feasibly lead to higher voter turn-out. She said that’s more likely to affect election outcomes than the adjustments campaigns are making to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.