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Florida’s campaign trail reinvented by pandemic

Hillsborough and Pinellas County campaigns relaunching canvassing with added precautions and tap into the virtual world using social media and Zoom to connect with voters during the pandemic.

Knocking on neighborhood doors. Shaking hands at meet-and-greets. Answering campaign questions at town halls.

These hallmarks of a traditional political campaign have vanished across the state since the coronavirus gained steam in mid-March. Campaign efforts once based in physically showing up for voters, putting a face to a candidate’s name in person, and authentically connecting one-on-one have shifted into a virtual world characterized by Zoom calls and social media outreach.

“It has changed the face of politics as we know it,” said April Griffin, a Democrat running for Hillsborough County tax collector who’s previously run three other county-wide elections. Quite literally, the faces of the Griffin campaign signify the presence of the pandemic. Some volunteers now sport customized face masks as they begin canvassing neighborhoods clutching fliers and hand sanitizer.

Griffin is campaigning against Nancy Millan in the Hillsborough County tax collector Democratic primary in August. Running on the GOP side is TK Mathew.

Related: Mystery candidate files to run in Hillsborough tax collector’s race

For some campaigns and advocacy groups, June has marked the revival of retail politics with added precautions. The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life advocacy organization, suspended canvassing and switched to survey-by-phone immediately in response to the pandemic. In the most recent weeks, they have revived door-to-door canvassing as part of a campaign effort to re-elect President Trump.

Other campaign classics with built-in social distancing — such as phone banking, putting up signs, and writing postcards — have remained intact throughout the pandemic, according to a number of local campaign candidates.

For Gary Pruitt, the sole Democrat running for Hillsborough County Sheriff, the pandemic has taken a toll on his style of campaigning.

“Before the coronavirus, we were everywhere,” said Pruitt. “We were at people's gatherings that we found literally on Facebook and Evite. We would just show up and talk to the people.”

Now, with social distancing and limits on in-person gatherings, Pruitt, who also ran for sheriff in 2018, says he’s finding it difficult to genuinely connect with voters digitally.

As Florida continues to reopen, however, Pruitt says his campaign is hoping to get back to some kind of normalcy where he can speak to voters face to face even if that means at a distance with face masks.

Also in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s race is first-time candidate Charles B. Boswell, who is challenging current Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister in the GOP primary this August. Boswell continued with in-person campaigning over the course of his campaign while adding a focus on social media.

Volunteers for his campaign have been out knocking on doors and interacting with voters despite the risk of coronavirus spread, according to Boswell. Although Boswell says the coronavirus is a threat, he says none of his volunteers have expressed concerns about it. “People are wanting to start living their lives again,” said Boswell.

Although there are some signs that campaigns are returning to canvassing, opportunities for town halls and meet-and-greets remain limited.

For some local campaigns, not only has the style of campaigning been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, so has fundraising. Neighborhood businesses and residents who might have previously been able to financially support political campaigns are now much more focused on surviving the economic downfall of the past few months, according to a number of local candidates.

“Is it a challenge to raise money? Yes,” said Boswell regarding fundraising during the pandemic. However, the limited funding due to the coronavirus outbreak is not steep enough to keep his campaign from getting the message out, he says.

Also affecting local races is the fact that traditional media coverage of county-wide campaigns has been drowned out by stories about the coronavirus and nationwide protests for racial justice, according to Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor from the University of South Florida.

“It’s hard to expand your name recognition when you can’t get through to everyday people,” she said. Because it’s difficult to gain campaign momentum with limits on in-person interaction, MacManus says candidates must use social media to tap into different networks of people based on interests, age, gender, and political party among other characteristics.

The increased reliance on digital communication means campaigns may miss opportunities to connect with large voting blocs that may not be consistently tapped into technology.

“The people who go in-person to meetings aren't necessarily the same people who know how to tune in through Facebook or Zoom or other electronic means,” said Jennifer Webb, a Democrat running for re-election to the Florida House of Representatives.

According to Webb, who currently represents District 69, which covers south Pinellas beaches, South Pasadena, Gulfport and northwest St. Petersburg, there’s a tough balance to strike now. There’s a tension between campaigning during a pandemic and addressing the concerns of her constituents that have arisen over the course of the pandemic, like unemployment and racial discrimination, she said.

Invoking the optimism that campaigns typically try to create “seems really beside the point when you’re talking to someone about how they haven’t gotten a check in three months,” said Webb. Webb added that more and more calls to her office are resulting in her referring people to the suicide crisis hotline as people grapple with coronavirus-related layoffs and discussions of systematic discrimination on the heels of the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

According to Webb, this election will determine how the issues raised in recent months will be fixed.

“This is the most important election of my life, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.”

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