The coronavirus has changed everyone’s lives. And last Wednesday’s earthquake spooked Utahns. The impact of both crises on the political world will be very significant in the weeks and months ahead. We offer our perspectives.
Many Utah political offices are up for grabs this autumn. How must campaigns adapt to reach voters and make their cases at a time of social distancing and almost no meetings or personal contact?
Pignanelli: “Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.” — Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
As with most Utahns, I spent Wednesday morning planning my daily response to the pandemic. After the tremors subsided, I declared out loud: “Really? What’s next, locusts?” Insightful politicians comprehend such apprehensions shared among the Utah electorate. Yet, they are deprived of the traditional means of expressing empathy available to humans for thousands of years.
This problem is further compounded by the necessary decisions of both parties to cancel precinct caucuses and empower the delegates elected in 2018 to serve in their capacities in 2020. No federal and state candidates (except some legislative contenders) participated in recruiting and electing these delegates. The tradition of hosting events for delegates is forbidden and conventions will be conducted online. This is a huge shift and the delegate/convention system may not survive as the shift to primary elections becomes more practical.
Social media along with the usual routes of television, radio and mail will be extensively utilized. The large number of gubernatorial, congressional and legislative candidates demands that only the most creative and powerful messages will be absorbed. Cookie cutter commercials and advertisements will likely fail.
Hopefully by November the virus, earthquakes and other biblical horrors will have ceased, revealing which candidates are the most adaptable.
Webb: This is a really weird time for politics. When our normal comfortable lives and routines are abruptly upended by pestilence or earthquakes, we quickly turn our attention to the basics of survival and making sure our families and friends are OK. Politics becomes suddenly secondary.
At times like this, voters aren’t much interested in seeing typical campaign commercials or speeches about how great a candidate is. They’re looking for reassuring leadership, not self-serving messaging or attack ads. Traditional campaigning is awkward.
And the process of campaigning has changed dramatically. No more door-to-door contacts. No more in-person campaign rallies or speeches. The usual events where candidates appear or speak have all been canceled. Debates will be virtual.
This will be a real test of a candidate’s ability to pivot quickly and adapt to the new realities. Social media was already very important, but now it is paramount. Reaching the right audiences with the right messages is entirely possible via social media, but it will test a candidate’s expertise and communications instincts.
Smart use of traditional broadcast and print media, along with creative public relations, will be good channels to build support as citizens tune in to get the latest crisis news.
Will the crisis create an advantage or disadvantage for incumbents in the coming elections?
Pignanelli: Office holders and seekers who truly comprehend the current emotions of voters in this changed environment, and craft their messaging accordingly, will succeed. Those who rely solely on past methods, do so at a risk.
Webb: It’s tricky for incumbents, but an advantage for them if they perform well. As they suspend traditional campaign activities, they have other opportunities to get before the media and reassure citizens. If they’re seen as exploiting the crisis, it will backfire. As state coronavirus czar and gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has the most to gain — or lose if he does not rise to the occasion.
In times of great need, even anti-government people look to government and political leaders for help. Is this crisis a validation of the importance of government in our lives? Will governments measure up to the challenge?
Pignanelli: Americans work every day to perform or suffer the consequences. So, they expect their elected and appointed government officials to provide services, especially in emergencies. Most Utahns correctly have confidence in the state and local jurisdictions whose record of success is unassailable. But the feds garner mixed reviews.
An ardent capitalist and defender of the free market, I believe in certain roles for government — especially management of a public safety crisis. Citizens appropriately demand officials abandon partisanship and self-promotion for the greater good. Utah leaders will respond accordingly — as usual. Hopefully, national politicians use this opportunity to reverse the erosion of respect.
Webb: Just like there aren’t many atheists in a foxhole, there aren’t many anti-government people in times of crisis. A major catastrophe takes away the ability of people to take care of themselves, and can even overwhelm the capacity of neighbors, nonprofits and churches to meet the needs.
So, government steps in, and especially the federal government, with few limits on its ability to borrow and spend. There are always fits and starts in gearing up to confront a major catastrophe and ensuing economic crisis. Given all of that, I think the coronavirus response on the local, state and federal levels has been quite good. President Trump’s own messaging has been mixed, but he has surrounded himself with some excellent people who keep the nation reassured.