2020 is an election year for many different offices in the United States, but the way state and national legislators are campaigning for their elections looks different from most years, as legislatures across the country are currently closed.
After the outbreak of COVID-19 and resultant social distancing guidelines, campaigning looks different for many candidates.
“There’s a need to literally press the flesh; shaking hands, patting people on the back, just being up close and personal,” said Mack Shelley, Iowa State professor and chair of the political science department. “You lose that kind of kinetic component of a campaign.”
Many candidates who are running for various positions have started to rely on social media to help keep their campaign running.
“It’s going to be an advantage to campaigns who have a more tech-savvy staff,” Shelley said. “There’s definitely more of an emphasis on younger-aged staff members who can put together a social media campaign rather quickly. This also will likely encourage more young people to come out to vote.”
While no longer a candidate for office, Tom Steyer said in an interview with the Daily the organizing efforts he supports to try to help elect other Democrats to office in the November elections have shifted to virtual methods such as text messaging and online petitioning.
Current legislators who are running for their reelection are also learning to use new platforms to promote their campaigns.
“They have to do more indirect advertising,” Shelley said. “The standard way legislators do direct advertising is by making sure their names are on bits of legislation, that they’re seen on the local TV news and participating on behalf of their legislation. That’s hard to do at a distance if the legislature isn’t in session.”
Legislators at the state and national level are still able to communicate with each other by cell phone or by a virtual meeting.
“Communication hasn’t been real hard to maintain,” Shelley said. “They can use a Zoom meeting as well as I can. However, people have to physically be present to cast their votes. Without a rule change it’s going to be nearly impossible to pass new legislation through.”
Some events during the pandemic have led to political fights.
Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an order delaying elective surgeries during the COVD-19 pandemic. This order included abortions, which generated pushback from many Democrats in the Iowa Legislature before state officials agreed to allow doctors to allow the procedures on a case-by-case basis.
“In that case the Democrats had the opportunity to force public opinion into the discussion,” Shelley said. “This is one situation when a major policy issue overweighs the fight against COVID-19. The Democrats were able to say ‘we’re merciful and support women’s reproductive rights while the governor doesn't’ and that gives indirect promotion to the Democrats even without the legislature in session.”
“Democrats and Republicans entrusted Governor Reynolds to manage the COVID-19 emergency when we adjourned the Legislature for the safety of Iowans who visit the Capitol,” said Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines in a tweet. “Banning abortion during that time has nothing to do with the pandemic.”
Other issues having to do with the pandemic have become campaign issues.
Iowa is currently one of a handful of states in the U.S. that does not have a “shelter-in-place” order. Instead, Reynolds has ordered some businesses closed and encouraged Iowans to only leave their homes for necessary items.
“Democrats in particular are trying to push from a public safety standpoint,” Shelley said. “They’re trying to say there should be a blanket order. They’re trying to portray their party as a party of human health and safety. They’re trying to break the chain of infection with COVID-19.”
The Twitter account for the Iowa Senate Democrats listed a number and urged constituents to call Reynolds and urge her to implement a shelter-in-place order in a tweet April 5.
Since indirect advertisement has become such a common way of promoting campaigns, candidates have also resorted to promoting their policy issues as well.
“Health care has been a major policy issue that the Democrats in particular have been known for pushing,” Shelley said. “They typically come across as favorable for health care access for all. If businesses are shut down and people are out of work, the Democrats are able to promote their health care for all stances so it becomes a bit of an advertisement in itself.”
The Iowa Legislature remains suspended through at least the end of April due to COVID-19.