No rallies, no fundraisers: COVID-19 is a game changer in Guam’s 2020 elections

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Because of the social distancing restrictions, there may be fewer traditional campaign rallies during this year's elections.

This will be a very different election year, to say the least, as the coronavirus continues to rampage in the mainland, and, to a lesser degree, here on Guam.

In the mainland, where COVD-19 continues to wreak major havoc, a number of states have already canceled their presidential primaries and there are some conspiracy theories that President Trump might defy the constitution and postpone the election in November.

While that is unlikely to happen in the U.S. and here on Guam, the coronavirus has already postponed the special election for the vacated Yona mayoral post.

So far, the schedules of the primary and general elections on Guam still seem to be on track with the Guam Election Commission announcing yesterday that candidates can start filing packets for the primary elections by Monday, May 11.

However, whether the electoral process proceeds on schedule or not, one can be sure that the coronavirus has already changed the dynamics of this year’s elections.

Perhaps the most important game changer is the effect of social distancing.

Republican Party of Guam Chairman Tony Ada pointed out that so long as social distancing is mandated, traditional Guam-style campaigning like door-to-door and house-to-house canvassing will be out of the question.

“Residents may be leery to touch campaign brochures and will not let you inside their gates or doors as was done in the past. There will be no fundraising gatherings, pocket meetings, or similar activity,” Ada said in an interview with PNC.

Campaigns go online

Former University of Guam president and former Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Robert Underwood said that the social distancing restrictions will heighten an “over-reliance” on social media which manifested itself in the previous election.

Underwood predicts that all candidates will have a social media presence and continue to advertise on it. In the 2018 campaign on Guam, Underwood said the Delegate’s race was conducted almost silently due to the attention given to the gubernatorial contest and the fact that then congressional candidate Michael San Nicolas relied almost entirely on social media to get his message out.

“It appeared that neither Madeleine Bordallo nor Doris Brooks had much presence in that arena. There was active social media by all gubernatorial candidates and a handful of senatorial candidates. They were assisted by bloggers (some fake personas) and non-traditional media. These individuals and non-traditional sources may loom larger in this year’s elections. Word of mouth is no longer whispered or conveyed in conversations. It is blared at everyone through a variety of social media platforms. Of course, kissing babies and hugging people will be difficult in this environment,” Underwood said in an interview with PNC.

He added that virtual campaign rallies will replace actual ones for a while and crowd size may no longer be a measure of popular support, although it may indicate intensity of support.

“Who would risk their health to support a political candidate? What kind of political candidate would propose risking the health of voters? Online, virtual campaigning will increase in intensity and amount. Messages tailored to certain audiences will be crafted and delivered. The most immediate casualty for this is the lack of feedback and interaction. We won’t be able to assess the response capabilities of the candidates and their ability to manage conflict. This will allow many candidates to avoid interaction with the public which should be required of all public officials. Moreover, they cannot be held accountable on a real-time basis since they can avoid interacting with traditional media or even interested voters,” Underwood said.

He added: “It is called ‘virtual’ because it isn’t ‘real.’ This will allow candidates to avoid the public. Some already relish avoiding the public while issuing messages (with no questioning allowed) on social media. We do not get questions and answers — we get Google alerts. This is not just sad, it allows the candidates to avoid accountability.”

Social media

The Republican Party of Guam agrees that online campaigning, especially in social media, will play a bigger role in this year’s elections.

“Conventional wisdom is that personal contact makes for more effective campaigning. Recent campaigns, however, have moved more toward heavier use of social media for candidate exposure. I expect to see even more online campaigning, and even online fundraising, this year out of necessity,” Guam GOP chairman Ada said.

One drawback of this, Ada pointed out, is the limited personal interaction with people. He said 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.

“This may not be feasible in the current situation. The disadvantage in online campaigning is also the presence of online ‘trolls’ who seek to drown out positive messaging,” Ada said.

Fundraising

Ada also noted that the social distancing mandate is having a major impact on candidates’ ability to raise campaign funds. He said 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, Ada said this may decrease, too, as many businesses are recovering from economic losses due to the pandemic. Under Guam law, and with social distancing in place, corporations will not be able to legally contribute to political campaigns.

Prepare now!

For Underwood, now is the time to start planning on how to conduct safe elections from a health point of view.

“For most, this means opening up early voting or facilitating voting by mail. We have time in Guam to make the appropriate arrangements. Ensuring the security of the voting process and the voters themselves should be and can be considered simultaneously,” Underwood said.

So given the limited and restricted campaign period, will incumbents have an advantage because they already have name recall?

“Incumbents already have that advantage. But it can be overcome by challengers who have great social media. I am not sure that this is a good thing. This depends upon what happens over the next couple of months. The tendency of elected officials to elbow their way into the conversation or to criticize others is unseemly, but expected. The pressure is really only on three individuals in this crisis. The Governor is the major player, but she is not up for re-election. She is the orchestra leader and the major decider on when and how the island ‘opens up.’ The Speaker is the other player, but the role of the Legislature is relegated to responding to the Governor’s initiatives and oversight. The Delegate is the third player. His task is to secure federal funding and support and advocate for quick release and information from federal agencies. How these three manage their responsibilities and NOT how they manage each other should be the basis for how we evaluate their activities,” Underwood stressed.

He added that newbie candidates can learn social media techniques quickly and they may already be adept at it. “Unfortunately for them, the most reliable voters are over the age of 60. They still need to be reached in some fashion; in both the new ways and the old fashioned ways,” the former congressman said.

Judged by action or inaction

Regarding who will be elected, both nationally and locally, Ada said incumbent candidates will be judged by the electorate in part by their action or inaction in response to the coronavirus public health crisis.

“Of course, new candidates will tout what they would have done or will do in the future,” Ada said.

According to Ada, the debate on the timing and manner in which elections will be held is still ongoing and expanding mail-in ballots is being increasingly considered, but cost, process, fraud, ballot security, and logistics issues will prevent the implementation of mail-in only voting.

“In any event, if the virus persists, the safety of election workers and voters alike would be at risk, unless strict protocols are followed at each and every precinct,” Ada said.

He added that incumbents certainly have the edge when it comes to name recognition and media exposure but not all proposals by incumbents are met with general agreement by the electorate.

“And while some incumbents are benefitting from earned media, there are some voters who wonder why other incumbents have little or nothing to offer. There are no shortages of bills introduced by incumbent senators to deal with pandemic-related issues. The problem is that the members of only one party were allowed to have their bills on the legislative agenda. I don’t expect all bills to pass, but in situations where public hearings on bills are waived, we should put the ideas of all senators up for debate. The majority party did not allow that,” Ada complained.

In addition, Ada said the steep learning curve associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is made more difficult by conflicting recommendations by experts and the rapid changes in the landscape.

“This applies to our political leaders and the general public, as well. Sound public policy development is not an easy task in view of this. At this point, there is still no clear plan on the use of federal stimulus funds. This could be to the detriment of incumbents’ re-election efforts and an issue that political hopefuls might be able to capitalize on,” Ada concluded.

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