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Campaigning during coronavirus: Juggling voter outreach with social distancing


‘It’s just one continuous Zoom meeting every waking minute of our lives’

It’s the middle of the day, and yet another pot of coffee is brewing in the other room. Conner Kerrigan and Forrest Richardson have been entangled in ongoing video conference meetings ever since they woke up. 

Kerrigan, 26, and Richardson, 27, are new roommates — both moved to the St. Louis area only a few weeks ago — but they’re also coworkers. And with a whiteboard adorning the walls of their dining room, their new apartment has turned into their office: a campaign headquarters for Yinka Faleti, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state. 

Conner Kerrigan, communications director for Yinka Faleti’s secretary of state campaign, works from a folding chair in his new St. Louis apartment — which has become a campaign office during the coronavirus pandemic. (PROVIDED)

Missouri has been under a state of emergency since March 13 as coronavirus has spread, becoming a global pandemic and taking the lives of 34 people in the state. Businesses, schools, government operations, and more have ground to a halt.

And on Monday, Missouri is officially under a stay at home order.  

So campaigns, in the midst of an election year, have had to morph, adapt, or even hit pause. While Vice President Joe Biden opened March by packing a St. Louis park, gone are the days of candidates holding babies and shaking potential voters’ hands. Now, candidates are finding new ways to connect with voters — through live social media videos or good old fashioned phone calls.  

“It’s just one continuous Zoom meeting every waking minute of our lives,” Kerrigan, the campaign’s communications director, said. “Normally we would be able to physically be with the candidate, but he’s obviously prioritizing being at home with his wife and children so we’re just constantly virtually connected to make sure there’s no information gap or anything like that.” 

“Campaigns are obviously very intensive jobs,” Richardson, Faleti’s campaign manager, added. “We work very long hours so we have to try to find ways outside of the box to make sure we’re keeping ourselves sane.” 

‘We’re going to have to be nimble’

For Ali O’Neil, campaign manager for state Sen. Jill Schupp’s congressional bid, working remotely isn’t new. The 29-year-old has worked on at least half a dozen campaigns and knows “your office is wherever your laptop is.” 

But a new adjustment she’s had to make for the campaign is finding ways to actively connect with volunteers and supporters. 

Ali O’Neil, campaign manager for Jill Schupp for U.S. Congress, said the campaign has had to be “nimble” in how it actively connects with volunteers. (PROVIDED)
St. Louis County, Missouri – March 08, 2020
CREDIT: Matt Roth

“Earlier [in March], before anything was happening really on the ground, before any confirmed cases in the news here in Missouri, we had a rally with 300 volunteers at an event which showed the excitement we have on the ground here,” O’Neil said. “We had people signing up, ready to go to work for her … and then all of a sudden things changed really quickly.”

“Those volunteers are contacting us, they still want to get involved, but they know we’re going to have to shift our tactics a little bit, they know we’re going to have to be nimble, and they’re ready for that. We’re shifting into a different mindset in terms of digital organizing and relational organization in getting people involved while they’re at home.” 

Schupp is one candidate who has shifted to reaching voters through social media. Late last month, she joined former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander in a candid Instagram live “fireside chat.” And O’Neil said more virtual events like that are in the works. 

Faleti, too, recently held a Facebook Live town hall for about an hour, reaching more than 6,200 people. 

“[It’s] an opportunity to at least digitally get him in front of a large group of folks so he can talk about his story, talk about why he’s running for office, and answer some questions from the community about himself and the Secretary of State’s Office,” Kerrigan said. 

Information over politics

Gov. Mike Parson’s campaign has repositioned itself, too — but to focus more on information during the global pandemic, according to the Republican’s campaign manager. Fundraisers have been postponed, Lincoln Days suspended, and donation solicitations have halted. 

Instead, the campaign has launched a website featuring Parson’s daily briefings and other statewide information related to coronavirus. 

“During this unprecedented time, in the interest of public awareness, Gov. Parson’s re-election campaign has shifted into an information-sharing mode because it’s important Missourians know the actions the governor has taken to combat COVID-19,” Steele Shippy said in a statement. 

“As the governor continues to focus on protecting the health and well-being of all Missourians, our campaign is doing its part to help inform the public of the actions being taken by the Parson administration. Now is not the time to play politics — our governor and his campaign are committed to working across the aisle to help Missourians through this challenging time in an open and transparent way.” 

Even before Missouri’s stay at home order went into effect, the pandemic required Forrest Richardson to turn his new apartment into an office where he could effectively run a campaign. (PROVIDED)

Schupp has spent a lot of time making phone calls — which isn’t necessarily different from what she would normally do in the midst of a campaign, O’Neil said. But the content of those calls has focused on what constituents are experiencing daily, especially as information about coronavirus changes rapidly. 

“It’s not new, per se, but just the type of interactions have changed a bit. Jill does an awesome job of finding out what people are going through, and when she’s able to help and take that and do something about it — like elevate an issue or write a letter to the governor — just having that touchpoint with people has been great,” she said.

‘It’s certainly going to be different’

Missouri is officially under a stay at home order as more than 2,300 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19. Consulting firms were quick to issue one-pagers to clients giving tips on how to remain socially distant while still canvassing or reaching out to voters. 

For example, Vanguard Field Strategies suggested backing up four steps after knocking on a door and offering to text the push card instead of handing someone a physical copy. 

And Remington Research Group touted its mass texting service and an app allowing volunteers to make calls from home. 

But at the end of the day, campaign staffers are still focused on one question that has not been made clear: What is voting going to look like this year? The April municipal elections have already been pushed back to June, and both the Democratic and GOP state parties have canceled caucuses and moved conventions. 

“There’s going to be an election — and we’re running a robust, strong campaign — but what is the GOTV going to look like, what’s going to the polls going to look like?” O’Neil said. “It’s certainly going to be different than how past campaigns were run.” 

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.