On 20 August 2020, former vice-president Joe Biden officially became the Democrats’ candidate for the 2020 presidential election, after winning the most delegates at the party’s national convention. A week later, on 24 August 2020, President Donald Trump accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president at its convention.

Since this time, the two candidates have taken different approaches to campaigning to be the next president. Donald Trump has continued to campaign in person across the US and has pursued a digital strategy similar to that of 2016. In contrast, Joe Biden has conducted much of his campaigning virtually, only very recently introducing in-person and local canvassing events.

This article considers the impact Covid-19 has had on election campaigning in three areas:

  • In-person
  • On the ground
  • Digital

In-person campaigning

The two candidates’ in-person events have been markedly different from one another. In June 2020, Joe Biden announced that, due to the pandemic, he would not hold any campaign rallies this year. In the same month, President Trump held his first rally since the outbreak of coronavirus.

On 20 June 2020, Trump held his first rally of the pandemic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The BBC reported that the event was “one of the biggest indoor gatherings in the US” since the outbreak earlier in the year. Prior to the rally, the Trump campaign said it had received over a million requests for tickets and was planning an overflow section outside the venue. On the night, the fire department reported that there were 6,200 spectators in attendance.

USA Today has estimated that President Trump has held 36 rallies between mid-August and October. This schedule of rallies was briefly interrupted for ten days when it was announced on 2 October 2020 the president had caught coronavirus. He held a rally in Florida on 13 October 2020 in which he claimed he was now “immune” from the virus.

Trump’s rallies have been criticised by public health officials for contradicting public health guidance. For example, a rally in Nevada in September was held in violation of the state’s 50-person limit on indoor gatherings, with few attendees wearing masks.

As part of his campaign, Joe Biden has held a mixture of virtual events, smaller socially distanced meetings and ‘drive-in’ rallies. In May 2020, the Atlantic described Biden’s virtual campaign efforts as “a disaster”, which lacked the “excitement and spontaneity” of a normal campaign event.

More recently, the Biden campaign has moved to socially distanced in-person events. At drive-in rallies, attendees stay in their cars and tune in to hear the candidate speak through their car radios. On 24 October 2020, Biden held an event in Pennsylvania to around 100 cars. He stated that he was holding such events instead of rallies so as not to be a “super spreader” of the virus.

On the ground campaigning

After the 2016 election, it was reported that Hillary Clinton had a more expansive ground-game than Donald Trump. This includes actions such as volunteers knocking on doors, holding community events to encourage voting and handing out branded campaign items to be displayed on voters’ homes or cars. This year, it has been reported that the Trump campaign had modelled its ground strategy on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. In August 2020, Donald Trump’s campaign claimed that they were knocking on a million doors a week.

The Democrat campaign had advised its ground volunteers against any in-person campaigning. Instead, democrat volunteers were encouraged to engage in deep canvass phone banking, which emphasised uninterrupted conversations with potential voters over door-step interactions. But, on 1 October 2020, Joe Biden’s campaign announced it would start conducting face-to-face campaigning. Primarily it would take place in key swing states such as Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire but the campaign expected to expand the efforts further.

Biden’s decision not to use face-to-face campaigning early in the campaign was criticised by many. Local volunteers and activist groups have expressed concern at the lack of visible support for Biden in their areas. In Florida, the chairman of the Florida Republican party has said the Biden campaign feels “non-existent” and that there is “no opposition” to his party’s in-person efforts.

Experts have disagreed as to the importance of groundwork. Some political scientists have argued that going door to door is ineffective in persuading people to vote for a preferred candidate, but may have some benefit in ensuring likely voters will actually vote on (or before) election day. In addition, door knocking is relatively expensive in terms of outcomes compared to phone banking or TV and digital advertising.

Digital campaigning

Whilst both in-person events and door-knocking efforts were halted at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, digital campaigning has continued throughout the campaign.

Both the Democratic and Republican national committees have been investing in digital infrastructure to improve grassroots fundraising for years. The committees were able to connect with huge pools of contacts, but had to change their messaging to acknowledge that parties were asking for money during a time of national crisis.

Spending reports suggest the two candidates have different priorities for their digital campaigns. In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign spent a significant amount of money on Facebook adverts; it ran 5.9 million adverts between June and November compared to Hillary Clinton’s 66,000. Many analysts argue that this strategy secured him the presidency.

In September 2020, the Financial Times reported that Donald Trump was outspending Joe Biden in online advertising. It said that between 17 July and 4 September 2020, Trump spent $72 million on buying Facebook and Google adverts, compared to $47 million spent by Biden. But, findings from the Centre for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks spending, show that Biden has heavily invested in online advertising since August.

In addition, on 17 October 2020, the New York Times reported that Joe Biden was outspending Donald Trump in TV advertising two-to-one. It presented particular contrasts in spending in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with Biden spending $54.6 million to Trump’s $17.8 million in the month of September.

There is debate over which medium of digital advertising is more important to an election campaign. Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University, has argued that “television ads do not allow for the degree of fine-grained or micro-targeted advertising that digital media ads provide”. However, some reports have claimed TV advertising could play an “outsize” role in 2020 as the pandemic has forced many more Americans to stay home and watch the television.

Read more

  • House of Lords Library, ‘Covid-19 and the US election: Voting during a pandemic’, 6 October 2020
  • Lawrence O’Donnell, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, 2017
  • Emmet H Buell Jr and Lee Sigelman, Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns Since 1960, 2nd ed, 2009

Image by Ben White on Unsplash.