‘A horse of a different color’: Wisconsin campaigns adjust to coronavirus

By: - March 31, 2020 6:15 am
MINNEAPOLIS, MN: Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN: Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

In a typical election, the best way to earn votes — in local and statewide races — is going door-to-door, talking to as many people as possible. But in less than a week, Wisconsin will hold an election that is anything but typical. 

With COVID-19 continuing to spread and models predicting the pandemic will be worse by election day, the state’s political campaigns — both large and small — have been forced to adjust to the new reality. 

Before shifting the digital campaign into high gear though, campaigns need to make sure their staff is healthy and set up to work remotely, according to Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that offers digital support to campaigns around the country. 

“They need to first think about their people and what their people need, having the right setup to work remotely,” Alter says. “Then you can move to how campaigns substitute their in-person events and door knocking with others.”

The Karofsky campaign has moved events to social media and Facebook live amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the infrastructure in place, campaigns need to figure out their own obstacles. Statewide campaigns such as Jill Karofsky’s run for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have different challenges than a city council race in a small town. 

“It’s definitely a horse of a different color,” says Tyler Hendricks, Karofsky’s campaign manager. “Campaigns are by nature a little different and adapting to changing circumstances is what we do.”

The Karofsky campaign, which covers the entire state, has canceled in-person events and canvassing, and moved its operations online with phone calls, texting and Facebook Live events. 

“I’m certain it’s easier than it would’ve been ten, fifteen years ago,” Hendricks says. “We’re taking advantage of the opportunities the digital age has to offer. You always take the face-to-face contact, that would be our preference. But we want to keep everyone safe and healthy and take these times as they are.”

As the act of volunteering for a campaign becomes more isolated, the campaign has kept its numbers up, according to Hendricks.  

“We still see a really good group of volunteers,” he says. “Folks know what’s going on, so there are still plenty of people who have shifted over. Folks have always been spending plenty of time on Facebook, they’re understanding and willing to adapt.”

Campaigns have had to move volunteer activities from in-person to remote, such as this postcard drive from the Daniel Kelly campaign.

While the statewide Supreme Court race has moved largely online — and is boosted by ads that can be targeted on TV and digitally to the whole state — local races have other obstacles, according to Sachin Chheda, a political consultant working with a number of local campaigns in Milwaukee. 

In a local election, the issues are all about what’s happening outside each voter’s front door. The candidate is a neighbor. The race is deeply personal and without face-to-face contact, the campaigns struggle, Chheda says. 

“The biggest thing is that in all of these local races all over the state, 95% of the work is candidates talking to voters directly at their doors,” he says. “These districts are pretty small. You expect in a local race you’re communicating with local voters one-on-one. With door knocking canceled, the entire normal campaign is upended.” 

For local races, it’s more difficult to reach the right voters when front doors aren’t an option. Knocking on a door guarantees the current resident in the district has been reached. If the campaign is relying on phone numbers or emails, it’s possible they aren’t reaching current voters, says Chheda. 

“The tools candidates are limited to now are social media, phone calls, text and email,” Chheda says. “None of those are as good as knocking on someone’s door. When you knock on someone’s door you know who they are. But you do the best you can to reach people.”

Broadcasting ads on radio or TV is also more difficult for a local race. Wisconsinites have been bombarded over the last few weeks with ads for Karofsky and her opponent Daniel Kelly, but it’s much harder for a local campaign to do that.

“Targeting an ad into an aldermanic district takes a lot of work,” Chheda says. “It’s easy to target a county or a state, but not that easy for a district.”

Whatever efforts the campaigns make, it’s unclear what the voters will do as an election takes place during a pandemic. 

“People are focused on different things right now,” Chheda says. “Elections for alderman or judge don’t seem to be a huge priority today.” 

On top of people’s attention being elsewhere at the moment, even the logistics of voting have been muddled and confused by court rulings, lawsuits and political fights. Nearly 900,000 absentee ballots have been requested, but voting absentee come with its own set of challenges including getting a witness signature (especially hard, under current conditions, for those living alone) and submitting a copy of your photo ID. 

Elections clerks around the state have received guidance on how to keep polling places sanitized — amid a nationwide shortage of sanitizer. 

Despite frenetic efforts to keep up with the changing circumstances of the election, officials are still concerned about access. 

“We’re just kind of trying to do everything we can to make the barriers to participating in the election lower, with the added steps it takes to request an absentee ballot, there are so many people who could be disenfranchised,” Courtney Beyer, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, says. 

As the work continues with just days remaining, campaign workers say they’re trying to do whatever they can despite the hurdles. 

“I think many fewer people are going to participate in the election,” Chheda says. “I think that’s going to be a detriment, too. I think we’ll survive, the people of Wisconsin are resilient, but I do think there’s going to be a degradation in the quality of representation people get.”

He added: “We’re doing the best we can.” 

Representatives from the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Kelly campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.