Masks And Megaphones: Ohio Campaigns Shift Strategies As Election Draws Near
About 50 people showed up near Mansfield last week to see John Pence, a Trump campaign surrogate and nephew of the vice president. “Is Richland County Trump country?” a campaign staffer asks to cheers and applause.
Most attendees are white and older, sitting in folding chairs that aren’t quite six feet apart. The warehouse space is wide and open, with 20-foot ceilings and a massive, open garage door. Still, no one is wearing a mask, even though organizers handed them out on the way in.
Marilyn John, a Richland County commissioner and leader of the local GOP, puts that down to personal liberty.
“Many people came in wearing masks,” she says. “When they sit down in their seats, they take their masks off. Maybe when they get in a specific spot they take their masks off. I would also point out that many people came in groups, with their families.”
Whether or not to wear a mask is just one issue making the 2020 campaign unique. Four weeks from today, on October 6, early voting begins in Ohio. Campaigns are in a mad dash to convince the undecided and turn out the true believers by Election Day.
But it’s likely hard to forget that COVID-19 already threw a wrench in one Ohio election this year.
John is on the ballot herself this November, seeking a seat in the Ohio General Assembly. As she and other campaigners around Ohio drum up support, they’re facing a balancing act between safety and outreach. Simple questions — Indoor or out? In-person or remote? — are taking on a new salience.
For her part, John says campaigning during COVID-19 looks pretty familiar, just with new precautions. For instance, they’ve tweaked how they distribute campaign signs, going to supporters instead of the other way around.
“We have volunteers that go out and plant the signs in the yards, and people are loving it,” John says. “They’re getting the word out, 'Hey, just contact them, leave a message and we’ll get a sign out. They’ll just deliver a sign to your yard.'”
During Pence’s remarks, he called up Cody Ragle and gave her a signed, red Make America Great Again hat. Ragle is from nearby Ashland County, and she’s been campaigning hard for Trump’s reelection in what she calls “Real-ville.”
She describes going door to door with a Trump field rep.
“It was mandated for her to wear a mask,” Ragle says. “So I thought, 'Well, I’ll just go out there and feel it out.' So I went out there, I knocked on a door, I backed off the porch, and when they answered the door, I asked them, 'Are you comfortable with our distance?'”
Democrats, on the other hand, seem to have made bigger shifts in their strategy. Ari Alex leads the campaign efforts for Ohio House Democrats, and says he knew right away COVID-19 would drastically reduce his options.
“So I started thinking about how do we connect with people, and I looked to Alaska, where the population is really spread out and it’s difficult to get to a lot of these places,” Alex explains.
They rely on the tools you might expect: phone calls, social media, text messages, even hand-written postcards. And Alex says the pandemic seems to have shifted the calculus a bit. Where most phone calls used to go unanswered, now people cooped up all day at home are ready to chat.
Alex says they’re also trying to coordinate their list of prospective voters with their volunteers’ social networks.
“We think that makes their message stronger, it’s not a random volunteer calling you or texting you, but it is someone that you know and have a relationship with," he says.
Alaina Shearer is taking a different approach. A Democrat running against Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) in Ohio's 12th District, Shearer bought a van, fitted it with speakers and christened it the “Us Bus.”
“In the spirit of a classic American ice cream truck, the Us Bus plays music,” Shearer says. “And we’ve got a megaphone in the front seat and I can say, 'Hey, I’m Alaina Shearer, I’m running for Congress, vote for me, this is why.”
Shearer compares it to a barnstorming, whistle-stop brand of politics that has fallen out of use in modern campaigns. Instead of zeroing in on specific voters, her approach catches everyone in earshot, while volunteers fan out leaving campaign flyers on every doorstep, Democrat, Republican or neither.
Balderson’s campaign has been emphasizing literature drops as well, but he misses the chances for person-to-person campaigning during a summer normally packed with county fairs and parades.
“That’s different than what I’m normally used to,” Balderson explains. “But you know, a lot of people are outside as we’re doing these lit drops, so we’re communicating with them, we’re talking with them, so you still get that retail politics going.”
Election Day is just two short months off, so campaigners won’t have to wait long to see how their approach fared.