Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus

Campaigns are shifting to virtual efforts to engage with voters after suspending events amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With staffers teleworking and candidates stuck either in Washington or in their homes, campaign teams are increasingly pivoting toward spreading information about the coronavirus and pitching in to help residents of their communities rather than spouting political messages.

Multiple interviews with officials on presidential and down-ballot campaigns underscored how candidates have been forced to turn to online media to reach voters as the pandemic simultaneously sidelines the contenders and pushes policy debates to the back burner.


Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, who relishes working a rope line and face-to-face interactions with voters, has sought to keep his presidential bid in the limelight with a spree of media appearances and virtual town halls mostly dedicated to the coronavirus after being forced to scrap his in-person events.

The Biden campaign confirmed to The Hill it will be ramping up its digital efforts to try to replace the face time the former vice president would normally get with voters. Events like virtual and phone-in town halls with Biden as well as medical professionals are expected to dominate his calendar, outreach that the campaign hopes will boost his standing heading toward a likely general election match-up with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.

“He’s one of the best retail politicians in the country, so that face time, the handshakes and the rope line time is super important to him and it’s where he really connects with folks, and I think you’ll see from us building out a digital program that still allows him to do that,” the campaign said.

“Having a formidable digital operation will be key and it’ll definitely put us in a position to compete, especially against the Trump campaign.”

For his part, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) has substituted his packed rallies with coronavirus town halls that feature medical experts, as well as livestream events with musical guests. Sanders, who is facing down a growing delegate gap against Biden in the Democratic primary, has scrapped much of his political messaging while the senator is in Washington working on coronavirus relief efforts.


Sanders’s livestreams to date have received more than 14 million views, according to the campaign, which did make an official available for comment to The Hill.

Down-ballot candidates in both parties who don’t boast the hefty campaign accounts of Biden or Sanders are also making the pivot toward digital outreach, with many telling The Hill they’re seeking to help residents directly impacted by the pandemic.

“Of course we’ve had our own challenges of having to convert virtually, but it pales in comparison to what business owners [are experiencing],” said Zack Carroll, campaign manager for Jaime Harrison, a Democrat facing Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op MORE (R-S.C.). 

“I can’t even imagine what these folks are going through right now, and frankly that’s on top of Jaime’s mind. We’ll get through this, but we’ve really got to think about the folks that are going to be hit hardest,” he added. 

The Harrison campaign has launched a new phone line to reach rural voters across South Carolina without access to broadband internet.

“We’re running for the folks that don’t have the same luxuries that we do — that face a much more uncertain future given this,” Carroll said. “That’s what our focus is going to be.” 

The reelection campaign for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsRepublicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill Trump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash  MORE (R-Maine), in one of the most closely watched Senate races, is conducting constituent conference calls to increase Collins’s exposure and offering to deliver items to residents who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“It hasn’t happened a lot yet, but people have had those conversations with folks and have offered, especially for some of our elderly neighbors who can’t get out, we’ve offered to go to the grocery store if we safely can do that and drop it off at their doorstep,” Kevin Kelley, Collins’s deputy campaign manager, told The Hill.

Both Amy McGrath and Theresa Greenfield, Democrats who are running against Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGeorge Conway group hits Ernst in new ad GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (R-Iowa), respectively, are also sending links to supporters urging them to join in donating to local food banks.

“As our daily lives change, so do the challenges each and every one of us face, and for many people that’s being able to purchase or have access to food. We are trying to close that gap by having neighbors help neighbors through our work with food banks,” McGrath’s campaign told The Hill.

Like Biden and Sanders, many down-ballot contenders are tailoring their message almost entirely around the coronavirus, cutting public safety announcement-style ads to detail health tips and appearing alongside doctors to urge voters to stay safe.

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Yet while campaigns are as dedicated as ever to maintaining their outreach, some admit they expect to pay a financial toll as face time with voters all but ceases and donors become increasingly tepid about making contributions.

“I think we’ve seen a huge economic crash and a global pandemic, of course there’s going to be a change of pace, for sure,” said Aaron Simpson, a spokesperson for Cal Cunningham, a Democrat running to unseat Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators The Hill’s Campaign Report: It’s primary night in Georgia Tillis unveils new 0,000 ad in North Carolina Senate race MORE (R-N.C.). “What hasn’t changed is the approach of the campaign and Cal’s mantra that we’re going to meet people where they are regardless of the circumstances.”

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