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Candidates Look For New Ways To Connect With Voters During Pandemic

A man in a black shirt and gray shorts stands next to a sign for the Nevada and Washoe County Democratic Party Headquarters as he waits in line to pick up a yard sign supporting Democrats on the ballot in Washoe County.
Paul Boger
Traditional campaigning has been difficult for many candidates running for office during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help, Democrats held an event that allowed supporters to come pick-up yard signs and campaign literature.

Campaigning in a normal election year can be difficult even for the most seasoned politicians. But campaigning during a pandemic adds a host of new challenges. The biggest might be how does a candidate connect with voters safely.

It’s a clear, cool day in Northern Nevada as Wendy Stolyarov sets a stack of yard signs on a table outside the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters in Reno. Stolyarov is currently running for a seat on the Sparks City Council. No stranger to campaigning, she previously ran for mayor in 2018.

Wendy Stolyarov. She is looking toward the camera and smiling.
Credit Courtesy of Wendy Stolyarov

“Every small campaign, especially local campaigns, are really dependent on time and place and getting face to face with your voters,” Stolyarov said.

But getting face to face with voters, right now — in the middle of a pandemic — isn’t easy, if not impossible. So, earlier this year, when Stolyarov went door-to-door, she just left campaign literature on the doorstep instead of knocking and introducing herself.

“If we were able to knock doors, it would be just a ton of one-on-one voter contact and that’s volunteer effort, and that’s something I can do myself,” said Stolyarov. “When you’re talking about texts, you got to pay for texts. When you’re talking about mailers, you got to pay for mailers. That’s always more expensive than direct voter contact."

That's a big change from previous elections. 

Sarah Mahler, chair of the Washoe County Democratic Party, says the organization has boosted its outreach efforts on social media.

"We’ve upped our game on that, and I think that’s going to be very, very, very helpful this year,” she said.

But is that enough?

Maybe not, says Elliot Malin, a Republican political consultant who says retail politics is vital for a successful campaign in Nevada.

“Nevada being a very libertarian-type of state and mentality, you’re going to the voter, you’re not going to expect the voter to come to you,” Malin explained. “We’re the state that gave the country the former majority leader in Harry Reid, but even he had to play retail politics here. He had to come up to Washoe, he had to go to these events as the majority leader of the United States Senate. 

And despite the pandemic, Republicans seem to be sticking to that more traditional “retail” approach.

President Trump stands behind a podium with the presidential seal during his rally in Minden in September. Trump is wearing a blue suit and red tie and is holding up a finger as he looks to the left.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR
President Donald Trump has been holding large campaign rallies despite the pandemic. He recently held a large outdoor rally in Minden, Nev., last month. He held an indoor event the next day in Henderson, Nev.

In the last month, President Donald Trump has held both indoor and outdoor rallies with thousands of mostly maskless supporters. Many in the GOP here have followed suit and are campaigning business as usual with traditional door knocking.

“We’re still connecting with voters, talking with voters, whether that’s at the door or over the phone. We made, in Nevada, over two-and-half million voter contacts,” said Keith Schipper, a spokesman for the Trump Victory Committee, a joint effort between Trump’s reelection campaign and the national and state parties.

“In Colorado, we’ve made four million voter contacts,” Schipper continued, “We’ve knocked on our one-millionth door over the weekend.”

He's quick to point out that volunteers take precautions such as using masks and gloves to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Marsha Berkbigler and her three dogs. She is looking toward the camera and smiling.
Credit Courtesy of Marsha Berkbigler

However, not every Republican is comfortable with that approach. Marsha Berkbigler is running for her third term on the Washoe County Commission.

“I asked somebody, ‘Can you get cauliflower ear from Zoom calls?’ ” she said. “I Zoom probably more than I do anything else.”

In addition to Zoom, Berkbigler has created a newsletter, sent out mailers and has even purchased a few television ads. And while she’s still concerned she might lose, she says that’s at least normal.

“Am I concerned?” Berkbigler asked. “Yeah. There’s only two ways to run an election – you either run unopposed or you run scared.”

In a normal year, Berkbigler said, incumbency and name recognition might be enough to carry the day. But in 2020, she’s not making any bets.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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