Adapt or die: political organizations, campaigns utilize different strategies ahead of the election

Effectiveness of political strategies to be determined by voters

Written By Amanda Andrews

Fiona McCarthy never thought at 25 years old that she would be involved in a job regarding taxes, let alone having to spread the word about income inequality in America almost entirely through Zoom and the Internet. 

McCarthy is the deputy communications director at Patriotic Millionaires, a nonpartisan organization made up of economic experts and millionaires who want to see changes to the tax code. In an effort to educate about the “rigged” tax system during the coronavirus pandemic, she and the rest of Patriotic Millionaires have had to adjust to how they are reaching people in a “Zoom economy.” 

“We were originally planning…to go physically to these congressional districts across the country, and spread our message there,” McCarthy said. “And especially in the fall tour, we’d love to do a big pre-election push for people to understand these issues really deeply and how it affects the economy for years to come. So it has really changed to being open to sort of digital formats only, and that has been a huge learning curve.” 

As the election race tightens across the country and in Pennsylvania, it is currently unclear whether the varying in-person and virtual strategies political organizations and campaigns are using will be effective enough to determine each of their ideal outcomes. However, today’s turnout and the results from thousands of mailed-in ballots will ultimately reveal what worked—and what did not—for the candidates and the causes they are advocating for. 

For Patriotic Millionaires, they have conducted their Tax The Rich. Save America Roadshow event, originally planned to be in-person, entirely over Zoom over the course of the pandemic. Their guests have ranged from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to state representatives like Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania’s 5th District or Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th District. 

Although Patriotic Millionaires has live-streamed in-person events in the past, planning and running virtual-only events has proven to be beneficial in some ways, McCarthy said, as logistics and organizing where people are standing are no longer issues. There have still been challenges though in navigating entirely virtual events for the organization. 

“We’ve had so many issues with technical difficulties and making sure that people mute their microphones all the time, like little tiny things that you wouldn’t expect to come up,” McCarthy said. 

According to McCarthy, the Tax The Rich. Save America Roadshow is meant to inform any American about the tax code, which she said has led to “many people [not] get[ting] the advantages that rich people have.” 

The pre-election push the organization is making is very much driven by the stakes of this particular election. 

“People just need to understand that this is an immediate crisis, and actual lives are at stake in the economy,” McCarthy said. “And more than just the next 10 years of unchecked inequality are going to continue to grow unless we do something about it like rais[ing] the minimum wage and get[ting] money out of politics.” 

Dr. Joseph DiSarro, professor of political science at W&J College, agreed that economics would very much be on the minds of voters this election season similarly to past election cycles. 

“But the main issue in this election, in my opinion, will be as in the past: the economy and economic well being,” DiSarro said. “As the great President Franklin Roosevelt said, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are great, but you also need freedom from want and fear, and there’s nothing more fearful to an American than the loss of their job. People jump out of buildings when that happens. So I think people will vote their economic interests on November 3.” 

In terms of campaign finances, in the last week before the presidential election, the Biden Campaign outspent the Trump Campaign around $40 million more in TV and radio advertisements, according to NBC News

The coronavirus pandemic has particularly put President Donald Trump’s and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign strategies into stark relief. President Trump has consistently held rallies while Joe Biden suspended most in-person events until August 31 and has since been making stops around the country. President Trump has criticized Biden’s cautious approach, whereas the former Vice President has publicly denounced President Trump’s rallies as endangering public health. 

According to DiSarro, Biden’s edge against President Trump, despite fewer in-person appearances, is how his campaign has mobilized in reaching out to voters. 

“When you’re outspending your opponent by so much, he’s got so many volunteers, doing so many different things to connect with the voter. The personal appearances aren’t as important,” DiSarro said. “They may be important for the base, and the Republican base is very much interested in seeing the candidate because…the numbers are huge at these rallies that the President has had. So could that make the difference? Could that somehow overwhelm the critical advantage of the Democrats having money, volunteers, and direct contact through social media? I don’t think so. I don’t think it will be enough.” 

Organizers at the Trump Campaign, however, said that they believed the Trump Campaign’s focus on traveling and meeting with supporters would win Pennsylvania, a battleground state that President Trump won in 2016. 

“Though we don’t necessarily target voters by geography, because President Trump himself maintains an aggressive travel schedule, and because Pennsylvania plays a key role to our pathways to 270 [electoral votes], we have the ability to go everywhere in the state,” said Thea McDonald, Deputy National Press Secretary of the Trump Campaign. “As Joe Biden only manages a few events per week, he can’t visit the towns and communities that have suffered from his 47 years of public life all across the Commonwealth.”

According to the most recent statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of State, out of the just over 9 million voters in the state, more than 3.5 million are registered Republicans and more than 4.2 million are registered Democrats as of Nov. 2, 2020. 

Though there are more registered Democrats in Pennsylvania, the Trump Campaign points to their success in 2016 and reports that even more Pennsylvanians have registered as Republican since his presidency began. 

“The Trump Campaign is making sure we’re connecting directly with every one of them, everyone who voted for him in 2016, and every blue collar voter who has moved away from the radical left over the last four years because the President has delivered real results for the people of Pennsylvania,” McDonald said. 

Dr. Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication, presidential rhetoric, public speaking and speech composition at the University of Pittsburgh, said that at this time, it is difficult to tell how the Democrats’ and other political organizations’ strategy of using Zoom will work out for them. 

“I’m not sure how effective the Zoom strategies work because they’re obviously connecting with a lot of people who are familiar with that particular medium, but beyond that, it’s not like turning on the TV and seeing a Zoom ad,” Schuster said. “It’s not that simple. Whereas regular media ads and even using social media are much more effective I think.” 

The effectiveness of Zoom, in addition to old strategies like direct mail and TV advertisements along with newer strategies like social media, is especially uncertain given a digital divide reported among Americans who may have limited or no access to advanced technology. This especially is of concern to McCarthy about Patriotic Millionaires having to switch to an entirely online modality.

“One of the many disadvantages of having to go entirely virtual is that we’re not able to reach folks who don’t have any internet access. That’s a privilege in itself, to be able to log on your computer and have a Zoom meeting,” McCarthy said. “Our audience is anyone who is interested in the future of our country and making it more free for everyone and more fair for everyone, but it’s limited by the circumstances for sure.”