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Campaigning in the time of COVID-19: Do incumbents or challengers have the upper hand?

To handicap a coronavirus election year without precedent, Washington State University’s Travis Ridout suggests looking back at another technological advance that physically separated the candidate from the masses.

The TV.

“That transition from everything’s on the stump, everything’s face-to-face, or door-knocking, to having television there now,” Ridout, a professor of political science with a research emphasis on campaigning and advertisements, said. “This is kind of the extreme this year. You aren’t doing anything in person.”

Challengers and incumbents alike have been forced to cancel major fundraisers. Candidate forums, once a place for undecided voters to meet and hear directly from candidates, have either moved online or been canceled outright. The presidential election, usually upstaging down-ballot races while also influencing voters to support or reject a party’s candidates, has taken on an even more prominent role in the 2020 election, as President Donald Trump has frequently appeared publicly to address the coronavirus pandemic, with his presumptive challenger, Joe Biden, attacking the response on social media and in his own speeches.

Given all those developments, it’s difficult to say whether incumbents will continue to enjoy the advantage they’ve historically held over challengers, Ridout and those seeking political office this fall say. But there are some historical lessons to glean from the advent of TV, when campaigns used the medium to reach audiences that would have otherwise been impossible.

The clear advantage in those days went to the incumbent, Ridout said.

“Campaigns became more media-centered, and that incumbent is the one you know,” he said.

Political scientists noted that from the 1950s, when the TV set became a popular feature of most American households, through the 1980s, incumbents on the federal level held a strong and growing advantage over upstart challengers. That was reflected in vote tallies and money raised for a campaign.

When mounting a challenge against a longtime incumbent, most candidates will say that meeting voters is the key to swaying support to their side.

Sue Kuehl Pederson, Republican running for commissioner of public lands against incumbent Hillary Franz, said campaigning now is really frustrating. Kuehl Pederson ran in 2016 for a state Senate seat in the 19th District, and one of the biggest things she misses now is canvassing through neighborhoods.

“It was an incredibly valuable and often moving experience,” she said. “It really helped me feel connected to voters.”

Dave Wilson’s goal in his multiple runs for Congress as an independent was to meet as many voters as possible, holding live events in local libraries and knocking on thousands of doors.

Now, as a Democrat in the time of the coronavirus, that emphasis has shifted to online meetings.

“You could potentially meet more people. You don’t have to travel, you don’t have to try to go to every corner of the district,” Wilson said of online campaigning.

Doug McKinley, running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse in Central Washington, echoed concerns about being unable, as a challenger, to meet with potential supporters face-to-face.

“It’s made retail campaigning a threat to public health and safety. You’re not able to hold town halls. … It’s made it very difficult to reach voters,” he said.

McKinley said if there’s a silver lining, it’s that normalizing Zoom calls and teleconferences has made it easier to reach people across such a large district.

Ridout said new technological tools for fundraising, such as ActBlue, allow benefactors to send small cash donations across state lines. Those smaller donations can add up.

“This latest race, for 2020, seems to be at about the same level as the past couple of cycles,” Ridout said of campaign fundraising. “We’re seeing more Senate advertising, but that may just be competitiveness.”

But some candidates say they’re not even asking for donations. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who holds a large cash advantage over her challengers, canceled her usual campaign kickoff event earlier this spring due to the pandemic and instead asked supporters to donate blood.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman said the pandemic has changed how she reaches out to voters. Instead of making phone calls and asking for donations, she said she often won’t even ask for money. She will only have a conversation about how the voter is doing.

Wyman said her fundraising numbers are not where her campaign originally projected them to be, but that they are still promising, as she’s seeing many people write out small checks.

“It’s just different,” she said. “Even at the events, it’s just weird seeing everyone on a screen.”

Gael Tarleton, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said the biggest way the pandemic has affected her campaign is through fundraising. Because so many people are out of work, it’s been difficult to raise money, especially from individuals rather than corporations.

On the other hand, Tarleton said she is not spending money in the same way she would have been otherwise. Like Wilson, she is not traveling as much, so she does not need as much money for gas, food or lodging.

Sareena Sloot, who’s running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse in the 4th Congressional District, said she, too, had difficulties seeking donors during the campaign season.

“It’s been a challenge. The financing is a touchy subject,” she said, because a lot of her friends and family have less money to donate to a campaign. She’s also questioned traditional campaign purchases, like campaign signs, noting fewer people out on the road.

Social media also offers a different avenue for political advertising, but in the case of Facebook, it’s only available for federal candidates. State and local candidates are also prohibited from advertising on the social media giant, per the terms of an agreement between the Washington Public Disclosure Commission and Facebook in December 2018.

It’s also unclear how much of that advertising will actually translate to votes in August or November, Ridout said.

“There’s not been so much research on the impact of Facebook ad on support for a candidate, or their willingness to turn out,” Ridout said.

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