COVID-19 and the 2020 Election: What to Expect

Impact on the 2020 Presidential Campaigns’ Strategy & Tactics

The Coronavirus pandemic will create a new set of political challenges and opportunities for President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Vice President Joe Biden. Campaigns will adjust their playbooks as the candidates’ needs to communicate with voters and raise money will be strained by the restrictions created by the virus and the government’s response.

Campaigns will be impacted as in-person events decrease and use of digital and video platforms to connect with voters increase.

Fewer In-Person Fundraising Events

Campaigns generate capital to support their campaign operations through three main channels: fundraising events with a principal, online fundraising campaigns, and direct mail.

Over the years, the importance of each channel has changed, but each channel remains important to fully fund campaign operations. Recommendations of gatherings of no more than 10 persons and social distancing limit the practicality and wisdom of in-person fundraising events of any sort right now. The loss of in-person fundraising events will surely create shortfalls in campaign budgets, so look for campaigns to increase their online and direct mail appeals. Canceling in-person fundraising events also creates a loss of connectivity between the candidate and their supporters, and between the supporters themselves, which can damage the sustainability and growth of a political network required to win.

Fewer Rallies

Beyond fundraising events, there is the larger question of campaign rallies. Rallies serve three purposes. First, they galvanize the base and enthuse supporters. Secondly, they provide an opportunity to reward top supporters with backstage meet-and-greets with the candidates and support down-ballot races by including those candidates in the pre-program. Finally, rallies generate earned media that is seen regionally and nationally. With fewer rallies, campaigns will need to find new ways to energize and reward their supporters, as well as make news.

Traditional Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) Efforts Will Be Reduced

As primary season continues, a key strategy for getting out the vote is door-to-door canvassing. Campaigns fan out across neighborhoods to remind voters that Election Day is around the corner and to distribute campaign messaging materials. Social distancing and heightened concerns of connecting with unfamiliar people puts a strain on direct engagement with voters.

Conventions May Change

Political party conventions are time-honored institutions for nominating and selecting the national ticket, as well as deciding the party platform. The convention occurs in front of thousands of enthusiastic delegates and supporters to a globally televised audience. It is the best opportunity to deliver a campaign narrative to the voting public, as conventions underscore campaign and party themes and showcase the presidential ticket and other races around the country. (Don’t forget, Barack Obama, a little-known senator from Illinois, started his path to the White House by speaking at the 2004 Democratic Convention.) Inside the convention hall, conventions are a celebration of the political party, and a critical part of political networking, as elected officials, party operatives and supporters gather to discuss strategy, share scuttlebutt and form consensus around a strategy and approach to win the election.

Look for These Activities to “Go Digital”

The suspension or curtailing of events, rallies, door-knocking and conventions will drive new ways for people to gather in digital forums. Look for campaigns to get technologically creative about online and video events, social sharing, and user-generated content (UGC) to drive fundraising and voting appeals. Over the last 20 years, social media has matured and become a critical tool for both top-down and organic political organizations. Social media strategies, which have been essential but not yet critical, will now find themselves in a new position to compensate for the new limitations placed on traditional fundraising, rallies, “get out the vote” efforts, convention activities, and paid media.

The Rise of Paid Media

Under these conditions, paid media will likely increase as it is the best remaining option to connect with voters. Interestingly, with a substantial portion of the country staying at home, media consumption rates are increasing. In particular, news programs are drawing increased viewership.

Compared to traditional TV advertising, digital advertising, with its targetability and increased audience sizes, has been growing over the years. And that trend will likely increase. However, there are some headwinds to that growth. Recently, the social platforms have implemented increasingly strict policies on political advertising. After all, Russians don’t run TV ads. What’s more, they are placing more restrictions on COVID-19-specific content to protect against exploitation. This will only further limit campaigns’ ability to advertise related to their messages on the virus and the government’s response.

However, those restrictions have not yet been considered by other forms of paid media, specifically emerging media that runs on connected TVs. With connected TVs, over-the-top / video-on-demand (Charter/Comcast/Cox) and addressable TV (Comcast/Dish/DirecTV) all now offer campaigns the ability to combine digital-style targeting with TV-quality experience and fewer or no social media platform restrictions. Look for campaigns to increase their video spend in these formats, eschewing traditional broadcast TV and the restrictions of social media platforms to deliver video to households.

The Bottom Line

Out of necessity, the trend towards more digital and technological forms of communication will accelerate. Campaigns will increasingly turn to these methods to virtually interface with voters, volunteers, and donors. The campaign that navigates best through this new reality will not only enhance its electoral prospects, but also influence the way future campaigns are run.


The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals

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