The coronavirus is changing campaign season, and your pizza might get political

Carol Thompson
Lansing State Journal

LANSING — U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin's 2020 campaign kickoff had the ingredients for a big event: a high-profile congresswoman, a swing district and a presidential election year.

But, instead of a raucous crowd of supporters, she addressed a smattering of journalists, United Auto Workers members and her own staffers in a Lansing union hall. Attendees were mostly seated a safe distance from each other, masks covering noses and mouths. 

The quiet gathering was not what Slotkin, a Democrat from Holly, is used to. 

In October, when she toured Michigan's 8th Congressional district to explain her controversial vote to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, Grand Traverse Pie Co. employees had to physically block the door to stop constituents from entering. The crowd overwhelmed the East Lansing restaurant and threatened to put it in violation of the fire code.

Participants listen as U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, speaks during her Ingham County Coffee Hour event on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, at the Grand Traverse Pie Company in East Lansing.

In the last campaign cycle, she hosted rallies that drew thousands. She and volunteers knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors in Ingham, Livingston and Oakland counties. Supporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder into Strange Matter Coffee Co. to celebrate her win.

But the sparse campaign launch wasn't a sign of a flop. It was a sign of the times.

The staples of a traditional campaign — rallies, handshakes, door-knocking — are off-limits this summer as the coronavirus continues to spread through Michigan.

The virus, which has killed more than 6,000 and sickened almost 72,000 in Michigan since mid-March, spreads through the same kinds of interactions candidates use to spread their messages.

"Obviously we've never had anything like this," said Dan McMaster, a Republican, campaign consultant and partner at Grassroots Midwest in Lansing. "We've always preached to candidates, the No. 1 thing is doors. The candidate that meets the most people usually wins."

That's especially true in the primary, coming up Aug. 4, he said. Because primary voters choose among candidates in the same party who often have similar ideologies, they care more about personal connections.

That means candidates have to get face time at community barbecues, club dinners, local government meetings, festivals, parades. 

"All that stuff is gone," McMaster said.

How the coronavirus, absentee voting change 2020 elections

The 2020 campaign season is fundamentally different because of the coronavirus and Michigan's recent expansion of absentee voting, political consultants agreed. 

This campaign season is all about the mail, said Mark Grebner, a Democrat, campaign strategist and founder of Practical Political Consultants. He's also a longtime Ingham County commissioner.

"People trying door-to-door campaigning right now are discovering it's just not working," he said.

Grebner was not optimistic about mailers, either. People get lots of them. Television advertising slots will be gobbled up by the presidential candidates, so he expects to see politicians texting voters and buying social media advertisements instead.

Which might not work.

"Everyone's going to be using the same techniques and people are not going to be interested at all in hearing any of this stuff," he said. 

Grebner predicted the candidates who devote their time and money to reaching absentee voters will be most successful in August.

"The fact that they've applied for an absentee ballot makes them pretty likely to vote because they have a ballot in their hands," he said. "You're going to want to contact them if you can."

About 1.7 million Michigan voters have requested absentee ballots for the August primary, according to the Secretary of State — a huge increase from this time in 2016, when only 475,046 had requested absentee ballots.

This campaign season also will be about money, McMaster said. Candidates used to be able to meet voters on the cheap by attending community events and knocking doors, but many of those options have evaporated because of the coronavirus. It costs money to reach voters through mailers, advertisements, and automated texts and calls.  

"It's surreal," he said. "This is truly one of those years [when] it's not necessarily the candidate that works the hardest. Right or wrong, if you've got money you can buy yourself a house seat. You can buy yourself a commission seat."

The dynamics of presidential campaigns have changed this year, too, said Michael Traugott, a research professor in the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies.

Candidates use "earned media," like sitting down for interviews with local television reporters or hosting rallies, to reach voters, Traugott said.

That's harder to do when travel and gatherings are restricted and carry the risk of spreading coronavirus. Candidates can't simply breeze through swing states. 

"For the 2020 campaign, there aren't going to be any large rallies," he said. "The communication patterns with groups of voters, or individual voters, is going to change."

Slotkin campaign volunteer Faiza Omar, left, of East Lansing, helps UAW Local 724 members Gabriel Cabrera and Terri Niblock use their mobile devices to register as attendees Friday, July 10, 2020, prior to U.S. Rep Elissa Slotkin's campaign kickoff at the UAW Local 652 headquarters in Lansing. The information attendees enter would be used for contact tracing should anyone attending or on her team contract COVID-19.

Candidates move outdoors, to gas stations and pizza boxes

It's especially tricky to launch a first-time campaign from a distance, said Paul Junge, a Republican from Brighton running in the 8th District August primary. 

"You need to build a political coalition, if you will, and a lot of times, especially for potential supporters and donors, they want to see you," he said. "Even if it's not a one-on-one, or face-to-face, they want to see you at an event. They want to have a sense of who you are."

Brighton resident and Republican Paul Junge  announced on Thursday November 14, 2019 his candidacy for the 8th District seat of Michigan in the U.S. Congress, which is held by Democrat Elissa Slotkin.

That was basically impossible in March, April and most of May. Junge turned to the phones instead, spending more time talking with people about their experiences during the pandemic than soliciting donations. 

He has been able to return somewhat to in-person campaigning this summer, since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relaxed rules on some gatherings, especially those held outdoors. Junge has strolled through car shows, attended picnics hosted by local Republicans and small, private meet-and-greets.

"You've got to be careful," Junge said. "You can't just walk right up to people and throw your hand out. Not everyone wants to shake hands. You look for places where people gather, you try to gauge if they are willing to have an interaction."

Mike Detmer, a Republican from Howell also running for the 8th District, said he was lucky to have started introducing himself to voters in person last year, back when he was vying for a seat in state legislature

Now with a focus on Congress, Detmer's campaign does limited door-to-door canvassing, but his volunteers wear gloves and stand at a distance from voters.

"It has to be an important part of the campaign," he said. "We're taking precautions, but it's different."

Howell resident Mike Detmer, a Republican, ran against state Sen. Lana Theis in the 2022 August primary.

The coronavirus has pushed more of his campaign to social media and digital advertising. Those options are cheaper than mailers, he said.

"It's a whole new world out there for trying to figure out how to reach voters," he said. 

At her campaign kickoff, Slotkin was clear about her goals for her 2020 re-election campaign: maintain personal connections, but do it safely. 

"I'm always going to put a focus and a preference on health," she said. "As much as I want to have a giant rally and love that energy and really was buoyed by it last cycle, it's not my place to risk someone's health. We're going to be really judicious about things that are in person."

Her team broadcast her launch tour to keep physical attendance low and will host online meetings where she will meet with the voters she won't see in person. The campaign is sending volunteers to drop notes and literature at constituents' doorsteps, but they won't stay for conversations.

They might ramp up advertising at gas station pumps and put campaign fliers on pizza boxes, taking advantage of the surge in carry-out dining.

"With COVID-19, everything is changing about how we campaign," the campaign's Ingham County field organizer Viviana Alamillo said. "We are training volunteers in contact-less canvassing and virtual phone banking from the comfort of their home. We are assembling and distributing yard signs and post cards, and much, more, with social distancing."

Contact Carol Thompson at ckthompson@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @thompsoncarolk.