In a normal election year, a long-time New Hampshire Democratic activist like Bette Lasky might have been in the room when Joe Biden delivered his convention speech. But last week, Lasky was in a parking lot in Derry, watching Biden’s speech drive-in movie style, the candidate projected on a giant screen. As she stood by her car, Lasky looked into the darkening summer sky and noted how, for her, 2020 politics feel deeply unnatural.
“It’s really frustrating, because I am used to being out there, campaigning, and consequently I feel like eunuch,” Lasky said.
Like pretty much everything else in American life, the way politicians campaign has been disrupted by the coronavirus. In New Hampshire, where politics is often intimate and in-person, changes wrought by COVID-19 can feel particularly drastic. President Trump returns to the state for a rally Friday in Manchester night, a traditional campaign season event for an incumbent president. But across the campaign trail in New Hampshire, norms for political fraternization are different these days.
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Gov. Chris Sununu, for instance, is skipping Trump’s rally. When Trump last visited the state in February, Sununu worked the crowd and signed MAGA hats. Now, Sununu says, prudence dictates that he stay away.
“My guess is it’s going to be a lot of people, and when I can I try to avoid large crowds, to be honest,” Sununu told reporters earlier this week.
Coronavirus-induced changes in political behavior are probably most pronounced among Democrats. Their campaign fliers these days often highlight mask use, and their entire 2020 pitch is shot through with the argument that all Republicans – from President Trump on down – are too blasé about COVID-19.
At the drive-in Biden event last week, parking spaces were 10 feet apart. The campaign barred reporters, even ones wearing masks and practicing social distancing, from mingling with attendees. Biden spokesman, Ben Friedman, said the goal was safety first.
“It’s a weird way to run a campaign in a pandemic; we are just trying to make sure no one gets sick,” Friedman said.
At Trump campaign events – even small ones like a recent anti-tax rally outside the State House – the approach is more business as usual. Most attendees wore masks when not speaking. But unlike Democrats, who have paused pretty much all in-person campaigning and voter outreach, the New Hampshire GOP continues to send canvassers door-to-door.
Louis Vilacci, a Trump campaign field organizer, was herding a squad of door-knockers – a mix of Trump volunteers and GOP staff – out of a campaign office in Manchester this week. RNC spokesperson Nina McLaughlin, who stood nearby, said COVID or not, Republicans plan to make multiple in-person contacts with targeted voters.
“I think folks are just excited for something that seems normal, so they are pretty excited to see us most of the time,” McLaughlin said. “And we’ve even heard from folks who are knocking on Democrats’ doors, and even though the person wasn’t in our party, they were just happy to see someone out door knocking.”
Whether in-person outreach means the same thing in an election in which many voters are expected to cast ballots by mail is a big question. Democrat Manny Espitia, who represents Nashua in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said he’s not planning to knock on doors this year. But he said he’s making phone calls, sending postcards and, like other Democrats, focusing on the virtual sphere, which he says has its upside.
“You’ve seen how many Zoom events we’ve had,” Espitia said. “You know, this has given lots more accessibility and transparency to the process.”
But for others involved in traditional, hand-to-hand politics, the absence of in-the-flesh campaigning is a barrier. Louise Spenser of the Kent Street Coalition, a liberal activist group, said the coronavirus scuttled her public political activity for months. Kent Street has hosted online candidate forums, but Spencer said it’s not the same as putting questions to politicians on the campaign trail.
“It’s a very different thing than trying to catch someone on the fly, and catch them off guard, and get the sense of how their minds are really thinking about an issue, and get some insight into them off script,” she said.
Perhaps no politician relishes in-person, off-script campaigning more that President Trump. His rally in Manchester Friday is expected to be the largest in-person political event in New Hampshire since the coronavirus pandemic.