Thursday, July 30, 2020

An Elegy for Old-Fashioned Political Campaigns in the COVID Age

The traditional campaign trail has become one of the political casualties of the COVID-19 epidemic. Joe Biden ceased holding large public events after he became the de facto Democratic nominee the week after Super Tuesday, just as the virus began its nationwide spread, and the Trump campaign has retreated to a similar policy after its comeback rally in Tulsa last month proved to be an over-hyped and under-attended disappointment. Even the president's most dedicated supporters turned out to be less enthusiastic about in-person electioneering in the midst of an uncontrolled national outbreak of disease.

It's become obvious this year how much of the standard press coverage of presidential campaigns is structured around the idea of a daily "top story" generated by the assignment of reporters and camera crews to follow the candidates around the country, ready to leap on anything that appears novel or unscripted amidst the otherwise repetitive cycle of stump speeches, rope lines, factory visits, and diner drop-ins. Most personal accounts of presidential elections written by candidates or journalists are blurry, weary travelogues that grudgingly acknowledge the democratic virtue of in-person politicking before returning to complaints about endless drudgery, exhaustion, and logistical snags.

But take away all that hopscotching from one battleground state to the next, and it's easy to wonder whether there really is a campaign at all. Joe Biden is continuing to hold virtual events and deliver policy speeches, but they simply don't seem as important—and certainly don't receive as much coverage—without big, cheering crowds and a chartered jet to schlep around the entourage. And Donald Trump's inability to hold his signature raucous rallies has helped to erase the line between presidential campaigning and presidential governing, as his COVID briefings and other White House events have come to serve as substitutes. Even if the virtual programs for the national conventions end up being snazzy productions, they will likely receive less attention than usual this year merely because they won't seem as momentous to the press or public as the in-person events of years past.

Might the lack of a traditional campaign trail affect the outcome of the election? Republicans are starting to worry that the result in November will wind up being a simple popular referendum on an increasingly unpopular admininistration—and not just in the presidential vote, but in congressional and down-ballot races as well. The Washington Post recently reported that many electorally vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents are challenging their opponents to an extensive series of debates with the hope that less-tested candidates will have a greater chance of screwing up in public, since the reduction of normal campaign events has also curtailed the usual practice of shadowing the opposing candidate with a "tracker" armed with a video camera to capture footage of any mistake. Meanwhile, Democrats have become concerned that their efforts to register new voters and mobilize sporadic participants will suffer from the relative lack of traditional grassroots activity this year.

Of course, the election was likely to serve as a referendum on Trump even before the onset of COVID, and the primary campaign arsenal of congressional candidates—paid advertising—remains unaffected by the current crisis. Interested would-be voters who have postponed registration so far may start to register in greater numbers as the election starts to approach, and the atmosphere of national crisis could also boost participation independent of organized get-out-the-vote initiatives. So the reduction of in-person campaigning this year may well have little effect on the outcome of the 2020 elections.

But the lack of so many familiar trappings of American political culture, from hand-shaking and small talk at midwestern state fairs and ice cream shops to the quadrennial spectacles of the national conventions, is still something worth mourning in our moment of disruption and isolation. Sure, a lot of this activity was formally obsolete and (for candidates, staff, and journalists) sometimes annoyingly inconvenient. But why should political campaigns necessarily be conducted for the maximum comfort or entertainment of their professional participants? Like so many other social rituals, these practices have taken on a meaning of their own as symbols of participatory democracy, and their absence—hopefully a temporary one—should rightfully be lamented as a small part of all that has been lost in this very sad year.