Political campaigning in the “new normal” of COVID-19

Updated: May 4, 2020

Jimmy Flannigan takes a selfie with his team on the set of his YouTube show "The Clawback LIVE!"

Published on April 23, 2020 at 5:30 pm


AUSTIN, Texas While discussing his campaign plans for the Democratic nomination for Travis County district attorney, José Garza was interrupted by his kindergarten-aged son, who entered the webcam frame to show off his “treasure box” of items he collects on their daily walks.

Garza said this is “a new normal” for life, one where the entirety of his campaign must be run online.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Travis County candidates to adjust their political campaigns in March by engaging voters in a new way — virtual interactions. According to the company website, Facebook observed more than a 50% increase of usage in “many of the countries hit hardest by the virus.” For many candidates, meetings through Zoom and Facebook Live news updates have replaced political rallies and door-to-door campaigning.

“They would be insane to get heavily involved in political activities in the traditional sense,” said Roderick Hart, a professor in communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, specializing in politics and media. “That’s hard because they need to get their word out and get their people out in the neighborhoods, but can't. We're in a time where there's no social contact.”

The Pew Research Center found in a 2019 study that the number of U.S. adults over the age of 65 who use Facebook is about 20% less than adults under 50. Though they are less active online, adults over the age of 65 are the most active voters, according to the 2018 U.S. Census.

Heading into a run-off election against current District Attorney Margaret Moore, Garza began his virtual “Living Room Chats” on March 16. Each week, he hosts a discussion over Zoom covering COVID-19 issues and resources for different residents, which he then shares on Facebook. So far, he has addressed students, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness and domestic abuse victims.

“Everyone is thinking about and is concerned about COVID-19,” Garza said. “That’s what's on people’s minds right now. We have a responsibility to check in with them on that issue.”

However, Garza has also continued a common method of campaigning — phone-banking — where he’s noticed an increase in response from the Austin voters.

“Everyone’s at home,” Garza said. “Because we don’t have those social connections that are built in for us every day, we have found that people really welcome someone calling them to check on them… People seem to be hungry for more in-depth conversations.”

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, who’s running for reelection in Texas State House District 47, said apps such as Facebook have allowed her to connect with residents from her home.

“Constituents who are in the further parts of the district like Lago Vista and Spicewood are showing up a little bit more because they don't have to drive somewhere to get there,” Goodwin said. “I think that has actually been a positive outcome.”

Goodwin has used Zoom to host events she would normally have in person, such as Friday morning coffee gatherings and evening happy hours.

“The first one, we invited some teachers to talk to us about what their experiences were changing (from the) classroom to virtual teaching, and it was very interesting to see how different teachers are handling it in different ways,” she said.

Goodwin said that volunteers from the Central Texas Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, We Are Blood and the Austin Education Fund also joined her Zoom calls to speak about volunteering and helping families in need.

The online methods were not as effective in Goodwin’s opinion because she appreciates the face-to-face connection, but she said her constituents continue to be supportive and understanding of the circumstances.

While she is hopeful about the future of her online campaign, Goodwin said right now she is concentrated on being there for her constituents.

“All of our focus is on making sure our constituents’ needs are being met,” she said. “So we have some volunteers who are making some well-check phone calls and they try to focus those on the older populations. So far, we've had good responses though. We don't really seem to be coming across anyone that is having difficulty getting meals or things like that.”

Jimmy Flannigan, an Austin City Council member running for reelection for District 6, sits in front of a green screen each Friday in his home to host his Facebook Live and YouTube show, “The Clawback LIVE!” On the show, Flannigan gives updates on the virus’s impact in Austin and features local business owners and musicians.

“I've always been more digitally savvy than maybe the average politician… so I'm very comfortable playing on social media and building websites,” Flannigan said. “I have 100,000 people in my district — you don't get 100,000 people showing up to a meeting at the library.”

Flannigan said campaigning gets trickier as campaign members would usually start knocking on doors and talking to people in their homes in the spring.

“It doesn't feel like that will be an appropriate action, or a safe one, for volunteers or the public,” Flannigan said. “We're having to think through more creative ways to do engagement with the community right now.”

Hart is a founding director for The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, which focuses its research on how technology can increase political involvement. He said campaigning during a pandemic could be perceived as insensitive.

“Quarantine has dramatically affected campaigns by essentially driving it below ground, especially at this particular time… in which the engines would really be revving up for both Democrats and Republicans,” Hart said. “It's a delicate thing to try to be a snarky, everyday politician when there are people dying.”

Andy Hogue, the communications director for the Travis County Republican Party, said people might be too nervous or feel “darn-right dizzy” about the situation to engage in politics.

“No one really cares about politics right now,” Hogue said. “They're just trying to get by and trying to wrap their mind around the current situation.”

Despite the chances of appearing inconsiderate, Garza recognizes the importance of engaging in elections.

“Within all of us as a community, there is embedded in us an instinct of perseverance,” Garza said. “I have faith that when we come to election time, it's important to people that they show up and make their voice heard.”

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