Elections: Campaigning during COVID, candidates try to stay connected without a handshake
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
With Montclair’s council and mayoral election just weeks away, how can candidates campaign during a pandemic when they can’t go door to door, can’t attend fund-raisers or shake hands?
“The coronavirus pandemic has certainly created a need for creativity in how we reach out to voters, but our commitment to reaching people and hearing their concerns and ideas has remained the same,” said Matt Krayton of Publitics, a public relations firm, who is heading up Third Ward councilman and mayoral candidate Sean Spiller’s team and has worked on dozens of campaigns in the past. “We’re taking very seriously the need to maintain physical distance to serve the greater good and public health.”
Montclair’s elections will be mail-in-only this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with ballots due back by May 12. The April 2 issue of Montclair Local featured biographies of the 14 candidates who will contest six township council seats and the mayoralty. Montclair Local has also posed questions on key issues to all of the candidates and will be publishing their answers in the coming weeks. But for the candidates, keeping connected to the voters through technology only is uncharted waters.
READ: A primer on Montclair government
Carmel Loughman, the independent at-large council candidate and a newcomer to the political scene, began holding listening tours before the threat of COVID-19 became real.
Her digital “campaign headquarters,” based on the issues she heard from voters through the listening tours, launched in early winter. She ordered door hangers, fliers and business cards, planning to go out and meet people at house gatherings, train stations, churches, and fund-raisers, but as coronavirus came through New Jersey and the state was ordered on lockdown in March, those business cards and fliers became useless.
“I value public discourse as a two-way exchange of ideas,” Loughman said. “I hoped by speaking directly to me I could excite and inform and get votes. With the coronavirus scourge all this changed. People are rightly obsessed with the pandemic. Voters are very uninterested in municipal elections anyway, and now with the pandemic it is hard to get their attention.”
She now uses social media for discourse and good old-fashioned sandwich boards placed outside her home for advertising. She spends hours scouring social media, a place where voters with no public outlet are airing their concerns.
“To be honest, I was never a social media user and am appalled by the nastiness and vitriol,” Loughman said. “But I have been asked about sanctuary cities, immigration, development, Board of Education, rent control, etc., and have provided comprehensive honest answers stating my point of view on each topic. People may agree or disagree with my positions, but they will know where I stand.”
Recently she asked for posters on two community Facebook pages to ask her a question, which resulted in 26 questions in one day.
Renée Baskerville, the current Fourth Ward councilwoman and mayoral candidate heading the slate “Your Voice Montclair,” said she had planned a two-pronged campaign — both a “tremendous high-touch campaign and a high-tech campaign for residents who are wired and remain E-connected.”
As the COVID-19 situation began coming to the forefront, limiting gatherings of any size, her team decided to “flip the script.”
Instead of a high-touch campaign approach, they went to electronic resident surveys, Zoom town hall meetings, targeted group discussions, newsletters and E-friend fund-raisers, among other things. Her team is also reaching out to voters via telephone.
She said she also has begun putting funds that would normally be used for campaigning into helping others affected by the virus. She is volunteering her time helping the various groups that are feeding Montclair residents during the pandemic.
“I made a decision not to put the dollars I have into my campaign, but rather to use them to help those Montclairions,” Baskerville said. “It was an easy decision to stop putting out limited resources into our campaign, and to channel them instead to those among us who are currently in a perilous state.”
Krayton, manager of Spiller’s campaign, said, “What used to be conversations that would take place at doors or at meet-and-greets are now taking place online and over the phone.”
Spiller’s team, “Montclair 2020 - Progress in Action,” is video-conferencing on platforms like Zoom, sending out email blasts and making phone calls, Krayton said.
Spiller has been doing regular video updates on the coronavirus pandemic on his Facebook page and website and has also been utilizing email blasts to get the word out. Some of the candidates have also been working with food banks to help.
“Technology is never perfect and there are always little quirks, but overall video-conferencing software has been valuable in helping us connect face-to-face with people,” Krayton said. “Of course, we're having a lot of phone conversations as well, checking in with folks to see how they are holding up and if they need anything.”