Policy Pub: Campaigns in a New Environment: A Retrospective into Political Campaigns in 2020

To learn about these topics in more depth, please navigate here to watch the full Policy Pub and Q&A from Dr. Hassell, presented by FSU’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

This policy pub discusses politics in a time of crisis and change and other new realities that have made this year’s national elections unlike any others. To begin, campaign battlegrounds and the tactics used to gain ground on these fronts have changed greatly. Campaign tactics change based on the nature of the political landscape on which campaigns are competing. For example, challenging an incumbent creates a completely different political environment than running for an open seat in congress. To illustrate this point Dr. Hassell turns to his previous research:

Dr. Hassell collected 1,500 emails from a random sample of 100 congressional districts in 2014, and searched for whether or not these emails included an attack on the opponent or the opponent’s party. While both parties tended to utilize attacks on the other, it was most commonly found among challengers. Moreover, these attacks tended to lessen as the election drew closer, with the week before the election having the least negative attacks. However, open seat races operate much differently: the campaign generally starts out positive and then becomes more negative as the campaign progresses, up until the week before the election.

In analyzing the how campaigns adapt to their political environment, Dr. Hassell turns to the 2020 election. Due to polarizing opinions on incumbent President Trump, as well as stay-at-home orders issued as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 made for one of the most unique election cycles yet. Dr. Hassell analyzed specific congressional tactics by surveying 1,800 congressional primary campaigns during the middle of the pandemic in April. Dr. Hassell asked if campaigns had changed as a result of the pandemic and interrogated strategies regarding how current campaigns were fund raising, engaging and mobilizing voters, and promoting messaging, among other details.

Dr. Hassell found that campaign marketing saw significant changes. Both Democratic and Republican campaigns reported more social media activity and virtual meetups with voters. Democrats committed more to absentee voter mobilizations, whereas Republican campaigns maintained the same rate of absentee voter mobilization.

The majority of Democratic and Republican campaigns reported that they did not change their messaging due to the events of COVID-19. However, Democratic campaigns were more likely to pivot their messaging, compared to Republican campaigns. Around 40% of Democratic campaigns stated that the COVID-19 events did change their messaging, as compared to around one fourth of Republican campaigns.

Due to the pandemic, campaigns were forced to change their political tactics. By pivoting their tactics, campaigns were better able to respond to and navigate the political environment, which helped lead to higher voter turnout. The 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout in a century, with a 66% turnout rate.

Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Hassell, director of FSU’s new Institute of Politics (co-sponsor of this Pub session), talks about politics in a time of crisis and change and other new realities that have made this year’s national elections unlike any others.

Q: Did the campaigns who saw an increase in social media engagement and virtual voter outreach have more electoral success than those campaigns who did not?
A: We haven’t gotten that far, yet, unfortunately. We don’t have any strong results one way or another.

Q: What do you predict the long term effects of the high absentee voter turnout will be
A: Most research has shown that the use of absentee balloting helps people that vote on a regular basis to vote more regularly. It’s not particularly good at getting people who have not voted in the past to vote.

Q: Did your research include finding campaign efforts discouraging certain voters from turning out as opposed to encouraging voters from turning out?
A: I have not seen a lot of that, but there’s always rumors that this sort of things happens. But I think that it’s not as big of a deal as the media make it out to be. Campaigns are more focused on increasing their own turnout.

Q: The Democratic Party largely avoided knocking on doors as a result of the pandemic. Is there any indication as to how this affected turnout or voter enthusiasm?
A: Political science research has shown that face-to-face interaction is one of the best ways to get people to the polls. They react to personal communication much better than they do a text message or a flyer. I suspect that it the lack of face-to-face interaction could have had a negative effect on campaigns.

To learn about these topics in more depth, please navigate here to watch the full Policy Pub and Q&A from Dr. Hassell, presented by FSU’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

Dr. Hassell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida State University and the Director of the Institute of Politics at FSU. Dr. Hassell’s research focuses on political institutions and specifically on political parties and their role in electoral politics. You can learn more about Dr. Hassell here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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