Will the Coronavirus Drive Political Campaigns Online?

Hazmat suits make for bad selfies

Over the weekend, Politico’s David Siders examined the coronavirus as a wild card for political campaigns. Let’s focus on one possible effect: will the virus drive candidates out of the real world and onto the internet?

Most political campaigns spend a far smaller percentage of their budgets on digital media than product marketers do, but if the coronavirus spreads fast and far in the U.S., campaigns will have to cancel rallies across the country. Voters will refuse to open their doors to canvassers, who would be reluctant to show up in the first place. No baby-kissing, no selfie lines — even Trump would have to give up his adoring crowds. With voters and volunteers stuck at home, digital channels will likely provide some of the few ways of reaching them cost-effectively.

Democrats would seem to face the biggest risk of viral disruption, since so much of their mobilization work depends on face-to-contact with voters, but paid media prices should go through the roof for everyone. Down-ballot candidates in general would take a hit, since most won’t be able to spend big on TV or radio to compensate for the loss of personal contact. To reach voters huddled in plastic bubbles, campaigns would shift resources to:

  • Paid digital advertising, including social media ads and video ads (if voters are stuck at home, they’ll be streaming shows)
  • Organic social media outreach, perhaps amplified by volunteers mobilized via text, Slack, email, Facebook group or DM (“influencers” may be in extra demand)
  • Supporter-created social media content, to make use of idle hands
  • Virtual phone banks, with volunteers making calls from their own bunkers
  • Peer-to-peer texting

Of course, the fallout for political campaigns will be among the least of our immediate worries if the coronavirus starts killing Americans by the thousands. Still, campaigns should create at least a contingency plan for a pandemic, if they want to boost their chances of electing someone to help handle the next one. Pro tip on the messaging front: we could use a little responsible leadership right about now.


Written by
Colin Delany
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