Thousands of New Jerseyans have already cast their votes; millions more will do so through Nov. 3 and that has forced campaigns to adapt how they reach potential supporters, nearly all of whom used to vote in a single day.
“It really has changed the entire game in terms of political communications and really campaigns,” said Chris Russell, a New Jersey-based Republican political consultant. “What makes this more chaotic is that seemingly every county in New Jersey has a different way they’re sending these ballots out … so you’re dealing with a kind of myriad election days all over the state.”
Monday, Oct. 5 is the deadline for county clerks to mail ballots to close to 6 million active registered voters in the state, although ballots started going out three weeks ago. Elections officials report that tens of thousands have already voted. The filled-in ballots will continue streaming back to county election offices over the next month and in the week after Election Day on Nov. 3.
With the presidential race, all dozen House of Representatives spots and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s seat topping the ballot, about 4 million ballots are expected to be cast this year in New Jersey.
When everyone voted on the same day, campaigns could time their messaging — and perhaps a negative “October surprise” revelation about an opponent designed to take votes away from them — to that one date. But vote-by-mail upends that calendar, meaning ad buys and mailers start earlier.
“You’re dealing with people who are voting much earlier and over a fairly long period of time,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “So you’ve got to start early and sustain the activity over a considerable amount of time. There’s really very little leeway. You’ve got to get this stuff out before the ballots go out and you could go up to Election Day.”
Russell said it has completely changed campaign communications strategies this year.
“Campaigns used to be built from Election Day backwards,” he said. “Now they’re built from when the ballots are going to drop forward … Now Election Day is the day the ballots drop and then every day thereafter that a person votes. It’s prioritized organization, in terms of how you’re going to get your message out and the timing.”
The major presidential contenders have already been advertising on cable TV for weeks. So have candidates in some of the state’s most hotly contested congressional races, such as the 7th District in central Jersey.
YouTube ads in August
In the 7th, both camps released their first ads on YouTube in August. Incumbent Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat who flipped this formerly red district in the state’s blue wave two years ago, has been running ads touting his record and his plans. The National Republican Congressional Committee has paid for several anti-Malinowski spots and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has countered with an ad targeting GOP opponent Tom Kean Jr., the current Republican leader in the state Senate. Kean has been running ads on other digital platforms promoting his record, while Malinowski also has already sent out a half-dozen mailers.
A longer messaging period also means potentially greater costs, although candidates are making greater use of digital and social media ads to get a big bang for fewer bucks.
“It’s not just about television ads,” said Matthew Frankel, a media strategist who has worked with Democrats and on state ballot questions. “Most of these campaigns have been up with ads on social media for weeks and months. What gets in your news feed is very, very, very important to a campaign … More people are watching their content on Netflix or Disney Plus; they’re not even on cable anymore.”
Updated campaign fundraising and spending information through the end of September is not yet available, but data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website gives a glimpse of what has been spent so far.
In the 7th District, the parties already have spent $2.3 million in negative ads, according to OpenSecrets, with the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund spending $1.2 million against Malinowski and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending $1.1 million against Kean.
‘Rethinking everything we were taught’
In the 3rd District, which spans Burlington and Ocean counties, Democratic incumbent Andy Kim began ramping up spending on digital ads in early August in his effort to keep the seat he flipped in 2018. This is another tight race. So far, Kim has spent $295,000 on Facebook and Google ads, almost five times more than Republican challenger David Richter.
Russell said that campaigns will be checking county databases regularly to see who has already voted and removing them from future mailings to minimize costs.
“It’s just about rethinking everything we were taught about how a campaign is structured and then paying attention to the details of when ballots are dropping and when they’re being voted so you’re not wasting your client’s money and you’re not needlessly trying to persuade a voter who’s decided a long time ago,” he said. “It’s an extra layer of scrutiny and attention to detail that we’re going to have to focus on.”
“Technology is no longer a means of just ordering a campaign; technology has now become the fundamental part of the campaign,” Frankel agreed. “We were obviously evolving into a greater dependency on technology, but with COVID, it has sped everything up.”
Frankel said that campaigning has always included a “significant level of direct and personal engagement,” but the pandemic has narrowed candidates’ options to digital advertising, social media, television, direct mail and Zoom or similar online interactions.
Congressional candidates have been doing a few, small in-person events, some creatively. On Saturday, for instance, Malinowski held a “drive by meet and greet” in Bridgewater, where supporters could also pick up lawn signs. Many voters still like meeting candidates in person, while there also can be a backlash. When Kean posted on Facebook a photo of himself wearing a mask and knocking on doors, it drew both praise and criticism, with one person writing, “What the hell are you thinking?!! Why are your volunteers knocking on doors in the middle of a pandemic when Rt in N.J. has increased to 1.12?!!!”
“I think it really does negatively impact candidates who have less money,” Russell said, “the ability to kind of level the playing field by getting out there and shaking hands and working a parade or going door-to-door or having rallies or events, those things have been, if not completely shut down, severely curtailed.”
In-person fundraisers were hit
Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has also made it harder for some to raise funds, because they can’t hold large, in-person fundraisers where they were hoping to take in smaller contributions. Some are trying virtual cocktail fundraisers, although the donor also must provide his own beverage, in addition to a contribution.
“If you’re expecting special interest checks or big PAC checks, it probably hasn’t curtailed that as much,” Russell said. “If you’re planning on a fundraising schedule that’s built around events and smaller dollars and you’re not successful at converting your small dollar thing to online … this has severely impacted the ability to host those events and I think it’s only getting worse as the weather gets cooler.”
The pandemic has left campaigns and consultants pondering another question: Should the candidate be wearing a mask in ads and on mailers? The reason the candidate is shown in ads is so the voter can see his face and expressions. A mask covers half the face. But a photo of a candidate in close interactions with others and not wearing a mask could turn off some voters.
When out campaigning, the candidates’ mask habits vary widely, often, though not always, according to party. On walking tours and visiting businesses, 2nd District Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy is almost always masked, while Republican incumbent Jeff Van Drew wears one often, but not always. The Facebook page of GOP challenger Richter in the 3rd District for at least the last month has shown him unmasked in all campaign situations — indoors and outdoors, socially distanced and shoulder to shoulder with supporters. His opponent Kim is always masked.
As for those much-reviled recorded calls that typically come in the weekend before Election Day, urging voters to remember to vote for a candidate, Baker said these might start earlier and last longer.
“It’s entirely possible that they’ll say, ‘People have the ballots, let’s start making those robocalls real early,’ and then you have to really continue,” he said. “It’s not like you can just stop when everybody’s got the ballots in hand, because we know there are people who are just going to sit on them and not turn them in.”
Frankel said there still will be a messaging push around Nov. 3 because New Jerseyans still have the option of going to a polling location and voting in-person, using a provisional ballot.
Hold onto the pandemic playbooks
“That has more to do with just creating a kind of a cost benefit and saying, ‘OK, people are still going to go out to the polls on Election Day, so we’re going to focus our spending around that,’” he said.
In the July 7 primary, which provided a nearly identical hybrid system for voting, about 180,000 people — close to 13% of all — voted in person.
Campaigns should not throw out their pandemic playbooks, however, once life returns to something more normal, as many more people than before likely will continue to choose their own Election Day and mail in their ballots.
New Jerseyans have been voting by mail in increasing numbers over the last decade, particularly in the last few years as voters have been able to ask for an automatic mail-in ballot to be sent for each election and as the state required counties to automatically send a ballot to those who had voted by mail in prior elections. In the 2010 congressional election, about 5% of all those who voted, or 114,000 people, did so by mail. By 2018, that number had more than tripled to 400,000, or more than 12% of all those who voted.
“I think a lot of these strategies really have to be rethought,” Baker said. “When the pandemic ends … maybe people, having been habituated to voting by mail, may just think, ‘Gee, it’s easier than getting up on a nasty November day to do this in the comfort of your home at your leisure.’”