First CD Democrat Frank Mrvan campaigns with a face mask; Mayor McDermott makes an appeal for vote by mail, and 5th CD Republican Kelly Mitchell.
First CD Democrat Frank Mrvan campaigns with a face mask; Mayor McDermott makes an appeal for vote by mail, and 5th CD Republican Kelly Mitchell.

INDIANAPOLIS —  Beth Henderson has been campaigning in the 5th CD with her two Belgian draft horses, driving into neighborhoods to show them off. Kelly Mitchell had a Zoom fundraiser with former Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard. In three batches last week, the two dozen 5th CD candidates appeared on a virtual meeting.

Up in the 1st CD, Frank Mrvan is using Facebook showing U.S. Rep Pete Visclosky endorsing him, while Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr., posted video of Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez delivering campaign yard signs on his behalf.

This is the stark, blunt reality of COVID pandemic era politics. If you were counting on an extensive door-to-door campaign and leaving literature on a doorknob for the past two months, the plans you settled on during that January kitchen table meeting with your consultant have gone askew.

“There’s no ground game, which normally helps you gauge perceptions,” explained Democratic media consultant Dave Galvin, CEO of Colfax Communications. “Campaigns have to be more creative and it makes it more expensive. There’s a lot more that has to happen behind the scenes for a candidate to interact with the public and it’s not easy.”

With the primary delayed to June 2 and both the Indiana Democratic and Republican conventions opting for a virtual format, it will be at least mid-summer and more likely after the November election before we know if and how the coronavirus pandemic will change American politics in a permanent way.

Not only has door-to-door campaigning screeched to a halt, the mingling campaign fundraising has been suspended, and more Hoosiers will vote by mail since Gov. Eric Holcomb, Secretary of State Connie Lawson and Indiana Republicans and Democrats opted for an expanded mail-by-vote system. The GOP attorney general race will be conducted via a delegate vote-by-mail format.

“A wildcard in this and all other primaries is turnout and the impact of the non-traditional primary voters,” said Matt Zapfe, executive director of the Indiana Senate Majority Campaign.  “As of May 4, approximately 15% of all GOP ab ballots requested statewide were from folks who had never voted in a GOP primary before.” 

Last week, Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer was asked what the long-range impact might be. “I think it’s too early to tell on politics,” he said.

Zapfe added, “If there is to be a more lasting impact, it seems like it could be more on the voting as opposed to campaign side with the strong push(es) nationally and locally by the Democrats especially to vote by mail. I think Sec. Lawson has done a good job making accommodations this spring in an unprecedented time. But I don’t see our campaigns losing that personal touch after this. I think we’ve seen technology step in to help (i.e. Zoom meetings) but I don’t think, when the dust settles and this passes, that we’ll stop our voter-to-voter contact, either door-to-door, town halls, or one-on-one meetings.”

Galvin noted that there have been more union endorsements this year than in past Democratic primaries since in-person contact and fundraising have become much more difficult. “There’s been a lot more labor money coming in the attorney general’s race between Sen. Tallian and Mayor Weinzapfel, as well as Mrvan and McDermott,” he said. “Candidates are spending a lot of time on the phone. There have been no events and campaigns have been doing online events, getting used to Zoom and Facebook, but the audiences are small and there’s been a ton of glitches.”

Campaigns are also turning to geo fencing and IP targeting. In the GOP attorney general race, Zionsville attorney John Westercamp has been turning up on an array of national publications (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker) because this writer has voted in past Republican primaries.

Galvin hasn’t seen the Westercamp ads, but has been seeing ads from 5th CD Democrat Christina Hale. “In my ad tech world, there are campaigns which did not think they would be doing IP and geo targeting,” Galvin explained. “IP identifies your digital or virtual address and it’s way more accurate.”

“Such targeting began with Barack Obama’s breakthrough 2008 presidential campaign and it’s now available to legislative and school referendum campaigns,” Galvin said. “Just in IP targeting, my business has increased by over 100%. They’ll spend funds on ad deployments. In that sense COVID has changed campaigns forever.”

Unlike direct mail, IP and geo targeting gives campaigns feedback on who accesses the ad. “Unless there’s a call to action, you can send 10,000 pieces of direct mail and won’t know that only 3,000 people looked at it. But on Facebook, you get feedback, constant feedback. It educates you on what message works best.”

“The digital side is a big deal,” said Galvin, who helped Glenda Ritz upset Supt. Tony Bennett in 2012 with a social media campaign. “We are now able to insert ads into devices, into TV sets. It’s a little cheaper than cable buys. We reach the cord cutters. We can insert commercials into programs. Cable is still being used, but that’s going to change.”

“Every community is different,” Galvin continued. “IP targeting has been as high as 82% match. But in rural areas, you might only get to 35%. We used to be able to synchronize with canvassing, but this year that’s all gone.”

“So, too, will political ads on network television affiliates, unless you’re running a statewide campaign or in a large congressional district.”

Business Insider reporter Daniel Carnahan observed: “If the pandemic continues through the summer, aggregate campaign spending will change in two major ways: Shifts in media consumption habits during the quarantine will likely guide campaign spending more toward digital; and President Donald Trump may spend less than expected due to extensive media coverage and challenges with messaging.”

On Carnahan’s first point, he writes, “The pandemic has shut down traditional canvassing and outreach efforts for both campaigns, and thereby weakened the efficacy of out-of-home advertisements, radio, town halls, and public rallies. Moreover, people are spending significantly more time on social media and with streaming services for news and entertainment. The resulting impact will likely lead campaigns and other politically-affiliated groups like PACs to shift an even greater share of campaign budgets to social media and search advertisements – and possibly even CTV ads.”
Cam Carter, a communications strategist and the former president of Tech Point, observed that micro-targeting could have dangerous implications for society. “We’ve moved away from targeting consumers to a market of one. I can talk to a voter directly,” Carter said. “I know what makes you tick. So I can disaggregate you from others. By making my message to you different than from anyone else, we can strengthen bonds between tribe versus tribe.

“The whole point of politics is governance; the exchange of views with people of different viewpoints,” Carter continued. “If all the tribes want to do is attack and not work through our differences, if we can’t use social platforms to talk to each other, then we’re doomed.”

Zapfe said that COVID has actually underscored some more traditional methods. “For instance, our telephone connect rates have been higher as folks are home and answering the phone.” Hupfer told HPI last week, “We’ve had a lot of success making phone calls to people. They’ve been very receptive. A lot of people are just happy to hear from someone and happy to have the conversation. We’ve encouraged our staff to call voters across the state and have conversations with them.”