At the national or statewide level, political campaigns these days look pretty much like they have for decades, even with the social media overlay and despite the coronavirus-related course corrections. TV, radio and online ads inundate us. The mail is full of slick literature (if the post office delivers it). Artificially pumped-up rallies that few of us attend draw one-sided audiences and still get pro forma media attention, as if they were significant. We follow daily polling of dubious reliability, tune into “debates” that have nothing to do with debating, swat away nonstop, increasingly desperate online pleas for contributions — brother, can you spare $5 to defeat the Senator from QAnon? Or maybe $1,000?
It’s all about big bucks, high-end production values, massive ad buys. All that stuff on Facebook, Twitter, et al? Just background noise — partisan, unreliable, quite possibly generated by Trump-loving Russians or right-wing conspiracy theory trolls, who are often indistinguishable.
But below the electioneering stratosphere — down here closer to the ground at the local level — politicians are exploring entirely new territory as they try to reach voters and establish a consistent message. In the COVID area, they can’t easily go door-to-door, or safely (not to mention responsibly) organize sizable campaign events. “No-contact” campaigning has taken the place of doorbell ringing.
When you can’t press the flesh, you had better be prepared to promote the pixels. Candidate forums are all online affairs, with office-seekers Zooming in from wherever they are in an attempt to connect with voters from a far remove.
I recently talked to 12th Legislative District candidates Keith Goehner, the incumbent for Position 1, and challenger Adrianne Moore about how they are campaigning in a huge district where personal familiarity means a lot.
“We’re doing exceptionally well given the circumstances,” Moore said. “The most successful campaigning — meeting people — isn’t available to us. But we’ve gotten very creative about campaigning all over the district.”
Moore supporters (wearing masks) are doing a lot of “no-contact” campaigning, with more than 200 volunteers going door-to-door but not engaging people. Instead, they are leaving campaign materials including sticky notes stuck to front doors.
Moore said she also does frequent literature drops herself, “all COVID-appropriate.” She also attends “any [COVID] compliant event I am invited to.” The Moore campaign is not organizing any events or doing any polling, she said, and all fundraising is being done online.
Then there are phone calls — thousands of phone calls, Moore said.
“The majority of our work is focused on where we need to gain ground,” Moore. “Swing neighborhoods, swing precincts, targeted audiences.” That would especially be outside of Okanogan County, where Moore and Goehner finished with about the same vote totals in the primary election. In the rest of the district, Goehner had a sizeable advantage in the primary.
Goehner isn’t taking that lead for granted, although he acknowledged that campaigning has been a challenge. He also uses internet connections and Zoom meetings, along with personal contacts when it’s appropriate. That’s not easy to arrange, he said.
“It’s time-consuming to meet people. I haven’t been a Facebook kind of guy,” Goehner said, adding that he has been adapting to the evolving realities of campaigning.
Goehner likes to remind people that as the sitting representative in the 12th District, he is always on the job and asking people about what’s important to them. “I’m not interested in just campaigning,” he said. “The issues we had pre-COVID did not go away.”
That said, Goehner will continue campaigning through the final few weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 general election. “At this point, we don’t know how many undecideds we have,” he said.
Campaigning is not without its nasty elements. Moore — and other Democratic candidates — have seen their campaign signs constantly stolen or vandalized. Goehner said one of his signs was also vandalized and he deplores the damage on both sides. “If someone wants to support someone, they should be able to,” he said.
“It’s a small group of people [doing the damage]. All we can do is make light of it,” Moore said of the vandalism. “We keep putting them back up. But it is illegal, and it hurts democracy and it hurts us.”
The candidates agreed that polarization has made politicking more difficult. “People feel so divided,” Moore said. “It’s more pernicious and divisive than in the past.”
That’s the saddest note from the campaign trail: The thing we most agree on is how much we disagree on.