Updated at 11:45 a.m. with Louisiana postponing its April 4 primary.
WASHINGTON – Rallies are out. So is door-to-door campaigning. Phone banks are out, but calls placed by volunteers from the safety of their own homes are in.
From the local to the national, politicians have been forced to adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some governors have banned large gatherings. And even without emergency declarations, what campaign wants to explain an outbreak traced to a rally they held despite medical advice?
And voters have quickly become “less receptive to people knocking on their door…The prevailing perspective is nobody knows what’s going on, and in that situation, people are going to hunker down,” said one Texas congressional candidate facing a runoff, Rick Kennedy.
The Austin software engineer announced Thursday that he will “virtualize” his campaign until the crisis subsides, not that he has much choice.
The Pflugerville-area Democrats cancelled a meeting he’d planned to speak at on Friday, like other groups he needs to reach.
“The schedule is now wide open,” he said.
The impact of the pandemic on U.S. politics has been most visible in the Democratic primary for president, though the crisis has put a crimp on candidates in both parties up and down the ballot.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders scrapped events in Ohio on Tuesday night when polls were closing, after state health authorities expressed qualms.
On Thursday, both campaigns told staff to work from home. Sanders suspended large events and door-to-door canvasses, shifting the focus to digital outreach.
When the two finalists meet Sunday night for the first two-person debate, they’ll tangle for two hours at a CNN studio in Washington, rather than sharing a stage in Phoenix before an audience.
The Democratic Party made that call Thursday morning, after deciding they hadn’t gone far enough by merely scrapping the traditional “spin room,” the unhygienic setting for news crews to crowd around candidates and their surrogates after a debate.
Turnout could be affected in four big primaries Tuesday in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio. On Friday, Louisiana postponed its April 4 primary, likely until June 20.
President Donald Trump warned in an Oval Office address Wednesday night that “older Americans should … avoid nonessential travel in crowded areas.” His reelection campaign abandoned a business-as-usual posture in the last few days, cancelling in-person training events. Trump has no rallies scheduled, a departure from his practice of filling arenas nearly every week.
‘Cancellations left and right’
One marquee race in Texas is for Sen. John Cornyn’s seat. As the incumbent, the Republican can afford to lay low.
But Democrats MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West have just over 10 weeks to make their case ahead of the May 26 primary runoff.
On Wednesday night, Hegar and West both planned to attend the monthly meeting of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. The group cancelled on short notice, telling members they were doing their part “to slow down preventable coronavirus transmissions.”
“We’re seeing the cancellations left and right,” said Vince Leibowitz, communications director for West. “Luckily in the modern age we have many ways that we are able to reach out to voters” — social media, email, texting, phone calls – but without in-person contact, “there is a connection that is lost.”
On Thursday, West held a news conference in Houston to tout the endorsement of former congressman Chris Bell. The campaign livestreamed it on Facebook, like a similar event in Beaumont with another candidate who fell in the primary, Michael Cooper.
“The only people that we even invited were the media, Sen. West, Chris Bell, and the staff that was there to put it on,” Leibowitz said. “It was a large room with a very small amount of people. With everything going on in Houston, we certainly weren’t going to invite members of the public.”
The Houston area has seen the most cases in the state so far.
“We’re not shaking hands. We’re keeping our personal distance as much as we can in a political setting,” Leibowitz said. And, of course, “everyone on Team West has been hand-washers since kindergarten.”
On Saturday, both candidates planned to head to Waco to woo the State Democratic Executive Committee. But speeches were cut from the agenda to shorten the meeting and minimize exposure.
Other forums for the Senate contenders have been postponed until April.
Some smaller “meet and greets” at the homes of supporters remain on the books, if the hosts don’t get cold feet, said Hegar spokeswoman Amanda Sherman. “We’re monitoring it closely and are really kind of taking it day by day of what needs to be pulled down….We’re not doing larger events, obviously.”
Hegar’s last public appearances were media interviews the day after the March 3 primary.
“We’re looking into what are the best kind of ways to reach out to people using technology, going less into rooms and focusing more on conference calls,” Sherman said.
As for Cornyn, campaign spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said he’ll “remain thoroughly engaged with Texans” via email, social media and telephone town halls but “in the near term, our campaign will not be hosting large events in Texas, including fundraisers, block walks and volunteer activities.”