Amid an uncertain election cycle, organizers move campaigning online

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Sneha Dey/Daily Senior Staffer

Former Vice President Joe Biden at a rally in Virginia before Super Tuesday. Biden is the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party for the 2020 election, but COVID-19 has affected the way Biden, and other candidates, will have to campaign.

Isabelle Sarraf, Development and Recruitment Editor

Voter turnout in the 2018 Illinois Democratic primary was up 300 percent from the 2014 primary, and November 2018 saw the highest Illinois voter turnout for a midterm election since 1990. But the novel coronavirus has already lowered turnout in state primaries, and has the potential to drastically affect the general election.

The voter turnout rate for this year’s Illinois Democratic presidential primary sank 25 percent lower than that of 2016, which many officials attributed to coronavirus concerns. Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he would keep the Illinois primary in March despite other states postponing theirs. Since then, campaigns and supporters have had to adapt to virtual platforms — an unprecedented shake-up to traditional political campaigning.

Marie Newman: The Comeback Kid

In March, two-time Congressional hopeful Marie Newman beat eight-time incumbent Dan Lipinski in the primary race for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. Many Evanston residents volunteered for her campaign, which gained national prominence in the weeks leading up to the primary.

Newman highlighted her progressive stances on abortion rights, healthcare and universal childcare throughout her campaign — policies that painted her in stark contrast with Lipinski and aligned with voters’ interests in her district.

Newman portrayed Lipinski’s positions as out-of-touch with the party, highlighting through social media posts his opposition to the Equality Act. Prior to his defeat, Lipinski was one of two remaining pro-life House Democrats.

[Read more about Newman’s historic primary win here.]

Ben Hardin, Newman’s campaign manager, said the month leading up to the primary forced the campaign to stray from the “traditional playbook.” Over 1,000 door-knocking shifts were scheduled for the weekend before the primary, he said, but the campaign moved the entire operation online.

“Ultimately, we had to keep our volunteers’ safety and health in mind, and also (that) of the thousands of voters we were going to talk to,” Hardin said.

Once Pritzker said he wouldn’t delay the primary, Hardin said the Newman campaign encouraged constituents to vote in advance or travel to the polls early on primary day to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distance. He said the campaign is now reworking its strategies ahead of the general election.

Hardin said Newman has already hosted virtual meetings with constituent groups and district-wide tele-town halls to stay connected with key groups of voters. He said she has also collaborated with other Chicago-area campaigns to host check-ins and flag resources for people in her district most affected by COVID-19.

Newman has also advocated for voting reform, especially after the Wisconsin primary prompted a national conversation about voter safety amid coronavirus, Hardin said. He added that Newman believes in a system of hybrid or total vote-by-mail to ensure everyone can vote.

“I imagine that we’ll probably still be in a similar situation come November, and it won’t be safe to ask people to get out to the ballot box,” Hardin said. “I’m really hoping that our Congress over the next couple of months can figure out some way to make this thing happen in November safely.”

Age is but a number

Genevieve Fleming, an Evanston Township High School junior, said as a 17-year-old ineligible to vote, it was interesting to watch the “domino effect” of presidential campaigns either suspending or entirely dropping out of the race, especially in the wake of COVID-19. After canvassing for entrepreneur Andrew Yang in Iowa prior to the caucus, she said his campaign suspension — like others following the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday — was predictable.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a high favorability rating among youth voters, which is why Fleming said his campaign suspension took her by surprise. She said she thought he would stay in the race as long as he could, but recognized the gap between Sanders’ and former Vice President Joe Biden’s delegate count would challenge a Sanders nomination. Sanders’ subsequent endorsement of Biden, she said, could provide direction for his large following to vote in the general election.

Though Fleming won’t be old enough to vote in November, she said many of her peers have already noticed COVID-19’s impact on the election. She planned a watch party with friends the night of the primary, but they canceled it due to coronavirus concerns.

“It was shocking to me that a watch party of 20 people was canceled but people were expected to show up to the polls where there could be hundreds of people,” Fleming said.

The ripple effect and the general election

Evanston Resident Jill Wine-Banks said she believes there won’t be a traditional Democratic National Convention. Wine-Banks ran as a delegate for Biden in the primary and won, but due to the pandemic, she said it will take a long time for campaigns to return to business as usual. There is no way the country will be “back to normal” by the Democratic National Convention, she said, which was recently moved to August.

Wine-Banks said she worries people aren’t paying attention to the news because of the constant stream of COVID-19 coverage. Though Biden and his supporters host virtual events nearly every day, Wine-Banks said most Americans are putting the election cycle on the backburner.

Echoing Newman, she said the media should place more focus on President Donald Trump’s opposition to mail-in ballots, which she said is a “challenge against our democracy” and can impede millions of voters from going to the polls.

She said campaign rallies cannot be hosted during the pandemic, as they would put attendees at risk. Wine-Banks said Trump’s call to liberate states and host public assemblies is irresponsible.

“If you don’t have a national leader — which we do not — who says ‘This is what the country must do…’ it’s really a horrible thing to have a situation where the federal government does not step up,” Wine-Banks said.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @isabellesarraf

Related stories:
Building a movement: How two-time Congressional hopeful Marie Newman unseated eight-term incumbent Dan Lipinski
Joe Biden wins primary in Illinois, Suburban Cook County
Evanston polling places increase coronavirus precautions ahead of Tuesday’s primary

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