The COVID-19 pandemic has turned American society upside down inside of a week. That includes the presidential campaign, which has already taken a backseat to news of quarantines, lockdowns and hospitals preparing to be overrun with sick people. Social distancing means an end to conventional retail politics; kissing a baby or giving a hug to an older supporter could mean spreading an invisible killer. Holding a rally — one shudders to think of the amount of infected spittle that could be sprayed — when public officials are urging the closure of schools, churches, bars and restaurants is nearly unthinkable.
Last week, both Sanders and Joe Biden canceled large public events in Cleveland because of worries over the spread of COVID-19, which last Wednesday the World Health Organization officially called a pandemic. When Biden made a victory speech Tuesday night after his win in several primary states, he did so in the presence of a cheering crowd in Philadelphia that was cordoned off from him. On Wednesday, his campaign said in an email that it was cancelling large in-person events in Illinois and Florida and that it would hold them virtually. They announced tele-town halls for their surrogates and Jill Biden held a virtual debate watch party Sunday — the debate was not held in front of a crowd. Trump canceled a rally in Wisconsin scheduled for March 19, while Sanders live-streamed a fireside chat on Saturday. All three men in the running for the presidency are in their 70s, placing them at high risk for serious repercussions if they contracted the virus.
So will the candidates lose any great value to their campaigns as they lose large in-person gatherings like rallies? What happens when there’s a presidential campaign with no rallies?
American campaigns and campaign coverage are driven by what historian Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events” — artificial inflection points meant to “drive the message.” Rallies are the crown jewel pseudo-events in our age of populist politics. In 2016, President Trump calibrated his rallies — earned-media bonanzas — to be uplifting, comedic, dark and cathartically angry all at once. Bernie Sanders has relied on his to prove the passion of his support, even in the face of establishment skepticism. The rally is as intrinsic to the American political fabric as flag pins, sex scandals, and elected officials saying, “folks.”
The content of rallies matter, but as my colleague Nathanial Rakich wrote earlier this primary cycle, one shouldn’t let crowd sizes lead them into a false sense that a candidate will outperform their polls. Biden, who is the front-runner in the Democratic primary and who seems all but a shoo-in for the nomination, hasn’t been known for his crowds at all, while Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the race, both made massive rallies centerpieces of their campaigns.
For Sanders, the rally proved critical in his rise in the 2016 primary. Political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck’s book, “Identity Crisis,” pointed to the large rallies that followed Sanders’s May 2015 campaign kickoff as a large part of the reason “Sanders’s share of news coverage far exceeded his share in national polls.” He drew estimated crowds of 4,000 in Minneapolis on May 31, 2015, 5,500 in Denver on June 20, 9,600 in Madison on July 1, 11,000 in Phoenix on July 18, and from August 8 to August 10, 15,000 in Seattle, 28,000 in Portland, Oregon, and 27,500 in Los Angeles.
In an email, Sides said the cancellation of 2020 events seems different and less likely to make an impact on the outcome of the primary campaign. “We’re not in the invisible primary anymore and not even really early in the primary season. So it’s an open question whether a rally or two, and the accompanying news coverage, would do much to change any voters’ mind. I guess since Sanders is currently trailing, he’d prefer to get all the attention he possibly can.”
The question of how to get attention for your campaign — the good kind, not the “yikes, someone at my rally got coronavirus” kind — is likely to dog a rally-less 2020 campaign. It’s unclear how many people will tune into live-streamed fireside chats or digital rally events or watch parties. In-person events are critical to campaigns since they help build lists of supporters and garner local media coverage. (I reached out to the Biden and Sanders campaigns about their plans for events in the foreseeable future but did not hear back.)
In an email, political scientist and FiveThirtyEight contributor Joshua Darr pointed to studies that have shown “positive effects of candidate appearances, and those effects are often tied to media coverage.”
Political scientists Scott L. Althaus, Peter F. Nardulli & Daron R. Shaw noted in 2002 that candidates often make a disproportionate number of campaign appearances in states with Electoral College importance (makes sense!). The point of those events isn’t just to connect with the people at the event, it’s to broadcast their appearance over local news, which campaigns see as friendlier than national media. Plus, the authors write, “candidates know that voters perceive local news media reports to be much more credible than television advertisements.”
But do these rallies really change minds? A 2017 paper by political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman argued that advertising and candidate contact with voters actually has no clear effect in persuading voters in a general election (primaries are a different story). Early on in a general election, campaigns can have persuadable effects, but those dissipate during the closing months of the election. That said, the authors note that “campaigns can sometimes identify pockets of persuadable voters” in some elections with special circumstances. One of the examples of persuadable subgroups in an unusual election came from the 2016 presidential race. There were “statistically significant effects” in an analysis of the presidential race in Ohio. “This was a highly unusual race because (a) a Republican candidate (Donald Trump) taking many positions out of step with the party, and (b) the prevailing campaign messages from the Democratic candidate’s (Hillary Clinton) campaign did not focus on the economic messages one might expect to persuade Ohio voters,” they wrote.
What will undoubtedly change is the way campaigns try to reach voters. “A campaign without rallies would be very different,” Darr said. “Campaigns would need to find ways to earn media and connect their candidate with supporters virtually, attracting earned media coverage of their creative solutions.” He noted that text message outreach and phone banking will become more important as the campaigns continue during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
The 2020 general election race between Trump and whoever comes out of the Democratic contest might well become a precisely tailored endeavor, with campaigns targeting specific communities in specific states with as personalized an outreach as they can muster. At the same time, they’ll have to maintain a national image via novel earned-media strategies.
Though he dropped out of the presidential race, Pete Buttigieg demonstrated a creative solution for earned media coverage recently. Last week, he guest-hosted “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” using the opening monologue to rib Trump, promote an emergency COVID-19 response bill, and generally cultivate his image as a smart, likeable guy. The Buttigieg campaign was ahead of the curve in its earned media strategy — the digital-native fluency of the first millennial presidential candidate can’t be underrated. It remains to be seen whether the septuagenarians still running for president will prove to be as creative. Their political futures may depend on it.