‘An election like no other’: The unique and strange 2020 election season

Early voting at FB Leon Guerrero last Saturday.

The most unique election in Guam’s political history is now unfolding.

Indeed, the 2020 election season is like no other. The same passion is there, as in all Guam elections. There is no shortage of issues to discuss and debate. But what was different was how political campaigning adapted to the limitations caused by COVID-19 and how political messages were created and sent to the voting public.

Perhaps the most important game-changer was the effect of social distancing. Because of this prohibition, traditional Guam-style campaigning like door-to-door and house-to-house canvassing became a thing of the past.

There were also no fundraising gatherings, pocket meetings, or political rallies filled with bombastic speeches. Instead, there were mostly quiet and boring Zoom meetings or candidate presentations made on Facebook by both political parties.

Even on election day itself, there wasn’t a lot of hoopla and election fanfare as limitations have been set on the usual massive candidate “tents” that offer free food and give last-minute exhortations for their respective candidates.

Longtime political analyst Dr. Ron McNinch agrees that this election is like no other. “This is the twilight zone scenario for an election. It doesn’t really feel like an election,” McNinch said in an interview with PNC.

According to McNinch, COVID-19 has obviously greatly affected this election cycle, especially with the adoption of the extended in-house absentee voting.

Guam Election Commission figures show that more than 20 percent of the electorate have already cast their ballots during early voting which ended last Friday. And of those who voted early, GEC statistics show that the majority came from the more senior segment of the island’s population.

“COVID has changed a lot of public behavior. It has also made young people restless. But most young people don’t actually vote. If they did, it would be a major election factor,” McNinch said.

He added: “No one really blames leaders for COVID, even the response has been pretty well tolerated. But, the key after the election leading to 2022, will have to be getting back on our feet.”

Another aspect of the election greatly affected by COVID-19 is the fundraising aspect. Guam Election Commission candidate reports after the election will confirm whether the social distancing mandate had a major impact on candidates’ ability to raise campaign funds. Many candidates rely on fundraisers from individual contributions, which, though lower in dollar amount, help to build confidence in the candidate and give regular, everyday people access and facetime with their candidates.

As for corporate contributions, this may have decreased, too, as many businesses are recovering from economic losses due to the pandemic. Under Guam law, and with social distancing in place, corporations may not be able to legally contribute to political campaigns.

“Incumbents have the advantage. We will check but there is likely lesser money raised this election cycle,” McNinch said.

As for the campaigning aspect of this election, many candidates, because of the social distancing restrictions, have resorted to social media and the other more traditional media like print, radio, TV, and digital media. Word of mouth is no longer whispered or conveyed in conversations but is blared at everyone through a variety of social media platforms.

Of course, the drawback of this is the lack of feedback and face-to-face interaction. The electorate on Guam is used to having more direct access to candidates and incumbents through events, to ask questions, make suggestions, and express their opinions with direct, personal feedback. During elections past, without social distancing, voters were able to get more in-depth information about candidates and the candidates were able to go more deeply and know what issues voters cared about.

McNinch himself thinks that social media is a little overrated. Social media campaigning may be the wave of the future, but not on Guam, at present, where social media campaigning still has its limits.

“On Guam, social media matters very little at this point. People vote because they feel connected to candidates. Or they have family or friends who claim a connection. This is the key to Guam elections,” McNinch stressed.

He added: “I think the waves matter more as well as the election site efforts. People with names will fare better.”

The cancelation of the primary is another factor that makes this election extraordinary. The scrapping of the primary suddenly put everyone into the general election, disrupting carefully laid out campaign plans and estimates and probably preventing the usual “black ops” tactic of crossover voting to eliminate more popular candidates.

Because of the cancelation of the primaries, McNinch said incumbents could have the advantage.

“It was the best choice ever given the circumstances. But it will favor incumbents in the legislature. I also think there will be more bullet voting, that is, voters won’t use all their votes,” the UOG professor said.

McNinch predicts that there may be five new faces or returnees elected to the 36th Guam Legislature.