Pandemic scrambles the campaign playbook
It’s July -- and time to get out the vote
JOHN WALSH, considered one of the maestros of Massachusetts campaign operations, admits he’s a bit befuddled.
The man who helped Deval Patrick rocket from political unknown to two-term governor and helmed the state Democratic Party as it worked to have Elizabeth Warren win back a US Senate seat knows as much about campaign strategy and field operations as anyone. But that also means Walsh, the campaign manager for US Sen. Ed Markey, who is facing a tough Democratic primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know.
“Let’s go back to the last global pandemic and take that playbook off the shelf,” he said. The quip captures all the uncertainty swirling around an election season unlike any other.
When the coronavirus outbreak hit in mid-March, it brought in-person campaigning to a sudden halt. Markey and Kennedy had to quickly pivot to the virtual soapbox of the internet, hosting Facebook Live events and fundraisers, using digital tools to showcase everything from a serious focus on policy to the personal in order to connect with voters. Kennedy invited viewers to join his family for a cooking lesson in his Newton kitchen. Markey displayed his hidden talents as a free-throw shooter in his Malden driveway.
The virus outbreak prompted Massachusetts, like a number of other states, to adapt voting procedures to allow people to avoid having to cast a ballot in person at a polling place. Starting a week and a half ago, Secretary of State William Galvin began sending applications for mail-in ballots to all 4.6 million registered voters in the state. Completed applications are now pouring into municipal election offices.
The shift to allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail is resetting the get-out-the-vote timeline for campaigns, which are scrambling to get supporters to apply for mail-in ballots while still planning for the traditional big push to get voters to the polls on primary day.
“It’s dual track,” said Nick Clemons, Kennedy’s campaign manager. “Normally, we would still be on the persuasion track,” he said, referring to efforts to win over undecided voters. “Then two weeks out you switch to get out the vote.” Instead, he said, both efforts are in play now and will be “right up to the end.”
The Kennedy campaign is referring to some of its current targeted efforts as “microbursts of GOTV,” campaign shorthand for “get out the vote.” One recent campaign mailing landed at homes just as voters were receiving mail-in ballot applications, an effort at persuasion that could also be the prod needed to get someone to fill out and return the application.
“About a month ago we stopped calling it Election Day,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager, of the push to change the campaign mindset that typically views GOTV efforts as culminating on a single day. The mantra instead in the Markey campaign, he said, is “September 1 is the last day to vote.”
No one knows what share of the primary vote will be cast through mailed ballots. In a handful of special elections for open legislative seats this spring, it ranged between 30 and 40 percent. Galvin, who oversees all state elections, thinks it will stay under 50 percent for the September 1 primary. But Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, thinks more than half of the primary vote will be mailed ballots.
“It changes the whole way that campaigns communicate with voters,” said Bickford. “You can’t just plan your major ad blitz for the last three weeks because you miss a quarter of the vote.”
In the Senate race, Kennedy started running ads in the spring. Markey jumped on the airwaves last week, perhaps not coincidentally as voters were receiving mail-in ballot applications.
Bickford said the state party is conducting 10 training sessions over the next four weeks with local party activists on how to promote mail-in voting in their community. He said most campaigns are encouraging supporters to vote by mail.
One practical reason is that every mailed in ballot from a supporter can be treated as “a banked vote,” said Bickford, with campaigns able to cross the person off their GOTV list and concentrate limited resources on other voters.
A more ominous thought running through some campaigns relates to the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic: A sudden spike in coronavirus cases in late August could dampen turnout at the polls on September 1, magnifying the impact of mailed ballots.
How mail-in voting might affect the Senate race is unclear. The conventional wisdom is that Kennedy will do better with a higher turnout that draws more “casual” voters who don’t necessarily turn out for every election, while Markey is stronger with committed party activists, issue-based voters, and higher-income residents who tend to cast ballots reliably in every election. At the same time, campaigns think higher income voters may be more comfortable completing the mail-in ballot application.
Kennedy lobbied for the state to go even further and send ballots, not just applications to receive them, to every voter. “Since his first day in Congress, he’s been a supporter of making it easier for people to vote and encouraging more people to vote,” said Clemons, the Kennedy campaign manager.
Turnout for a primary is typically about 25 to 30 percent, but many expect that figure to be higher this year, driven up by the high-profile Senate showdown, which has drawn national attention, and the mailed ballot voting option.
Along with the Senate primary, which will almost certainly determine the general election winner in the overwhelming Democratic state, voters in the Fourth Congressional District will be choosing from a sprawling field of nine Democrats vying to succeed Kennedy, who had to give up his House seat to make the Senate run. The primary winner will also be heavily favored to capture the seat in November in the district which snakes its way south from Brookline, Newton, and other wealthy Boston suburbs all the way to Fall River.
“We’re building the plane as we fly it,” said Jesse Mermell, one of the nine Democratic candidates, about campaigning under the changed the conditions of COVID, including mail-in voting. “It has to start with education,” she said. “We’re focused on making sure people understand how they vote right now.”
“Rolling GOTV” is how congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss described the effort that is already underway, and will continue until the primary, to get supporters to cast votes.
There are actually three ways voters can cast ballots this fall: mailed ballot, in person at their polling place on Election Day, or through “early voting” at a designated location in their community during the week prior to both the primary and November election.
Dave Cavell, another candidate in the Fourth District Democratic primary, released a video last week on Twitter in which he walks voters through the process of completing the mail-in ballot application. “There is a fair amount of confusion about it,” he said. “We are trying to get the word out.”
Voters can select on the application whether to receive a mail-in ballot for the primary, the November general election, or both. The majority of voters in the state, about 2.6 million people, are independents not registered under any party label and are free to vote in any primary. But they have to take the added step of marking on the application which party’s primary they want a ballot for.
The challenge — and all the unknowns — of the state’s first election allowing every voter to cast a ballot by mail is weighing particularly heavily on election officials in the 34 communities where the open congressional seat is expected to drive turnout even higher.
“The volume is crazy,” said Newton city clerk David Olson about the ballot applications that were arriving at City Hall. Late last week he guessed that at least 500 applications had arrived each day since Monday. “And we’re just seeing the preliminary tip of the iceberg right now,” said Olson, who has had to bring in extra help to process the applications.
Galvin said the state will receive $8 million in emergency federal funding to distribute to communities for added election-related costs amid the pandemic.
Olson said he will also need extra staffing help on primary day itself. Absentee ballots are normally sent out to the polling place where the voter is registered and then counted when the polls close along with the in-person votes. But the volume of mailed ballots will be so great that Galvin has authorized communities to process mailed votes separately at a central location. In Newton, Olson said, that will mean staffing a room at City Hall with eight additional machines — one for each ward in the city — where mailed ballots will be fed into the optical-scanning devices on primary day.
Meanwhile, Olson and other election officials across the state are facing another pandemic-related challenge: lining up enough poll workers willing to staff in-person voting locations amid fears of a deadly virus.
Olson said Newton typically needs 220 to 250 poll workers on Election Day, with many regulars who have staffed the locations for years. “I know there are quite a number who, because of their age or health conditions, are not going to be willing to work,” he said. There’s been a lot of interest among younger people in the one-day jobs, though Olson said he’s yet to nail down firm commitments for all the positions he must fill.
“I’m a little concerned, but I’m not overly concerned,” he said.Galvin said he treated the handful of legislative special elections earlier this year as “a sort of laboratory” to get a handle on all the wrinkles involved in the new vote-by-mail world.
“The goal will be to get every ballot counted that night,” Galvin said of the primary. “It’s a choreography of a lot of people doing a lot of things.”