Christy McLaughlin, tech-savvy candidates get creative as coronavirus upends campaigns

Forget about kissing babies, pressing the flesh or snapping selfies.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought a crashing halt to traditional campaigning, forcing candidates to find innovative ways to connect with voters while complying with the social distancing guidelines that define this brave new world.

Some even turned to dating apps.

Florida Republican Christy McLaughlin tapped into digital apps that allow for more personalized, one-on-one interactions traditionally used for finding love — or hookups — as a way to build relationships with voters.

She opened accounts on Tinder, Hinge and Bumble to attract voters to support her bid to replace GOP Rep. Francis Rooney in Florida’s 19th congressional district.

Mr. Rooney decided not to run for re-election last year. Ms. McLaughlin, who will be 25 when voters cast their ballots later this year, said she also plans on tossing together FaceTime parties to interact face-to-face with potential voters and is using Snapchat as well.

“I figured it would help me reach voters I wouldn’t meet otherwise at club events, and given the quarantine, I typically won’t find them on Facebook either because of lack of mutual friends,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “It is a different group that I am reaching out to in a technological grassroots way.”

She said the platforms make it possible for her to message 60 people at any time, and she has even been able to reach older voters who are not the dating applications’ primary demographic.

“It’s as if I went to an event and then I talked to a bunch of people individually for a few minutes, but this time you aren’t feeling cramped for time,” she said, noting she had 60 messages from prospective voters with questions awaiting her when she woke up Wednesday morning.

The digital campaign efforts go all the way to the top of the ticket.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s Democratic presidential run had momentum, but his omnipresence in mass media got bumped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Grounded in his Delaware home because of social distancing guidelines to slow the virus’ spread, Mr. Biden has taken to counterprogramming White House press briefings from a lectern placed in front of a bookshelf.

“I’ve been there in the situation room,” Mr. Biden said in a briefing from his rec room. “There are thousands of steps that need to be taken all at once. You need to be planning not just for today but for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Is the White House actively planning for what it will take for the American people to begin to return to something resembling a normal life? I don’t know.”

Not satisfied with live streaming from home, Mr. Biden’s search for new tools has reportedly included huddling with the leadership of NowThis News, a digital content organization with a penchant for producing short viral videos benefiting liberal candidates and causes.

Some candidates are finding the coronavirus is making it more difficult to gain traction against incumbents with strong name-recognition and a better-established foothold.

Arizona candidates have fewer than two weeks remaining to get the signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. Social distancing guidelines are making it hard to meet voters for Anne Marie Ward, who is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Paul Gosar in Arizona’s 4th congressional district.

To help her gain attention, Ms. Ward made a campaign ad featuring her firing a Barrett M82a1 .50-caliber rifle mounted atop her Humvee in which she asks for people to help her get on the ballot.

“If you love God, guns and the great state of Arizona as much as I do, click the link below, sign my petition, and get my name on the ballot,” Ms. Ward said in the digital ad. Her campaign is running the ad on Facebook, primarily aimed at male voters.

Being prolific on social media during the coronavirus crisis is critical to a campaign’s success.

Eric Wilson, a digital strategist training Republicans, held a webinar Tuesday recommending candidates and campaigns post three-to-five times on Facebook per day and seven or more times on Twitter. He told the campaigns to remember not to simply broadcast their message but to also interact with their audience to successfully use social media and not turn it into “sociopath media.”

“Think of your social media channel like a network exec would with his television network or her television network,” Mr. Wilson said. “Think about the different programming that can come into play: You can be behind the scenes, you can be offering documentary-style, you could be doing hard news, you could do entertainment. Think about the different programming you can offer and then stick to that style, offer it consistently.”

In calls-to-action via email, Mr. Wilson said the average reader will spend 13 seconds digesting the information. He said to think about the attention span of the audience as compared to the length of an average NASCAR race pitstop and coached the campaigns to present a clear and concise message.

With varying predictions about how long the coronavirus outbreak could sideline business-as-usual for candidates and campaigns, Mr. Wilson said to plan on disruption lasting indefinitely and told campaigns to focus on digital content.

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