Local candidates pivot campaign tactics amidst coronavirus pandemic

Local Republicans and Democrats are using different strategies than usual to reach voters


Emma Coleman

Local political organizations have pivoted their campaign tactics due to the coronavirus pandemic and connecting with voters virtually.

Shauna Muckle

Two months before Election Day, local political organizations in the Rockbridge area are adjusting their campaign tactics to accommodate the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. 

September is traditionally a busy month for political campaigns. But this year, voter contact looks much different, especially for a presidential election year.

Buena Vista hosts an annual parade during Labor Day weekend, where candidates give stump speeches and local political parties promote voter registration, but it’s been cancelled this year. The annual Rockbridge Community Festival in mid-August was also cancelled.

Canvassing, or knocking on doors to promote candidates, typically begins in earnest in September as well. 

With fewer in-person campaign events, local political organizations are reconfiguring voter contacts. But Republican groups and Democratic groups are assessing risks somewhat differently. 

The Lexington and Rockbridge Area Democrats on Jefferson Street in downtown Lexington have steered firmly away from in-person canvassing. 

“It’s a trade off,” Lexington City Democrats chair Gene Zitfer said. “I think some people appreciate that we’re being prudent and trying to protect the health and safety of members of the community. I hope people recognize that there are limitations this year.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have also limited their attendance at in-person public events, Rockbridge County Republicans chair Doug Smith said. 

But volunteers are still canvassing door-to-door this month for both Rockbridge County Republicans and for the Sixth District GOP, a Republican organization dedicated to the entire sixth district. 

Virginia’s sixth district includes stretches from Roanoke County in the south to Strasburg in the north and includes all of Rockbridge County. According to Sixth District GOP chairman John Massoud, volunteers are asked to leave screen doors closed and put three feet of distance between themselves and the people whose houses they knock on. 

Smith also suggested that all canvassers should be wearing masks, although he didn’t say whether that policy is enforced among volunteers for Rockbridge County Republicans. 

Smith said that while canvassing is logistically more difficult this year, it’s an essential practice for getting out the vote in favor of Republican candidates.

“It puts a human face on it,” Smith said. “You can have all the digital ads, the ads on television, but if people… see a neighbor, perhaps a familiar face, it’s an indication of an energized party.”

For local Democratic campaigns, remote voter contact is becoming increasingly normalized. Michelle Watkins, chair of the Rockbridge County Democrats, said that phone banking is their primary means of contacting voters likely to support Democratic candidates.

Alongside promoting candidates’ positions, Watkins said that this year in particular, volunteers have been communicating details on how to vote before or on Election Day and are making accommodations for voters without transportation. 

Volunteers ask residents of Rockbridge County if they’re registered, if they’re voting early, if they need to request an absentee ballot and if they need a ride to their country registrar’s office, as well as informing them of critical dates for submitting ballots, Watkins said.

Rockbridge Area Democrats has partnered with 50 Ways Rockbridge, a local advocacy organization that is supporting local and statewide Democratic candidates this election cycle. 50 Ways Rockbridge has launched a “Get Out the Vote” campaign to help inform voters on the logistics of voting and registration, which includes a postcard and mailer campaign for prospective voters. 

Republicans are also relying more on phone banking to get the word out about candidates. 

Smith said that while he’s in favor of in-person voting this November, local Republicans plan on informing voters of dates and deadlines for voting once the state finalizes its plans for mail-in and in-person voting. Massoud also pointed to the fact that absentee voting was as high as 50% in the May elections as reason to continue informing voters on absentee ballots.

As COVID-19 case counts in the Rockbridge area remain low, both Rockbridge Democrats and Republicans are gradually beginning to host small, socially distanced or outdoor events for volunteers and supporters.

Candidates have begun attending limited in-person events as well. Nicholas Betts, ’19L, who is challenging the Sixth District Republican incumbent, Congressman Ben Cline, attended a socially distanced fundraising event in Harrisonburg. 

Watkins said that especially for first-time candidates with less name recognition like Betts, maintaining communication with voters in spite of cancelled events is essential.

“It’s one thing for candidates to say this is what I’m going to do or this is how I’m going to do it, but candidates [need to] understand what their communities are asking for,” Watkins said. “When you have community members involved with the action plans before the election, you’re going to have greater commitment.”

While the Buena Vista Labor Day parade was cancelled, Rockbridge County Republicans still plan to host  a breakfast for its supporters that weekend in order to fundraise for Republican candidates. According to Smith, they’ve shifted the event outside in order to remain distanced and minimize risk for possible COVID-19 transmission.

50 Ways Rockbridge organized an in-person volunteer session on Sunday, September 6, where their goal was to mail hundreds of postcards in support of Democrats.

Local campaigns have also turned to social media and digital advertising to reach voters. 

Massoud said that during elections in May, when Rockbridge County and its surrounding areas were more heavily shut down, the Sixth District GOP became more proficient in Facebook as a means of digital advertising than it had in years past. 

Watkins said that Rockbridge Area Democrats and local Democratic candidates have also more frequently used Facebook and Zoom to orchestrate events.

“There are so many different ways to reach people online,” Massoud said. “[For example], Facebook advertising, ‘geo-fencing,’ in which you take a website and can advertise based upon what websites people tend to look at. Texting works too.”

Rockbridge County Democrats and Lexington City Democrats are focusing on electing Joe Biden, re-electing incumbent Senator Mark Warner and electing Nicholas Betts, who’s challenging sitting Congressman Ben Cline, for Virginia’s 6th Congressional District. Since City Council races are nonpartisan, Betts is the most local candidate Democratic organizations are supporting. 

Rockbridge County Republicans are encouraging voters to re-elect Donald Trump, to elect Daniel Gade, who’s challenging Mark Warner for Senate, and to re-elect Congressman Ben Cline as Virginia’s 6th District representative. The Sixth District GOP is also focusing on City Council races in other counties, Masssoud said, despite the nonpartisan nature of the offices.