Washington Wednesday – Has COVID changed campaigning for good?


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, October 28th, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. By this time next week, all the votes will be in, although they might not all be counted.

We may know who our next president will be. Or we may have to wait awhile.  No matter what happens, we know that God is sovereign.

EICHER: And to help remind us all of that truth, we will be sharing special prayers and Scripture readings at the end of every program next week. 

If you want to participate, you can add your special prayers or passages of Scripture, we’d love to hear you and possibly share that on the program. So if you’d like, just make a recording using your smartphone’s voice memo app and email it to us at [email protected].

REICHARD: [email protected]

Well, I think if we had to pick one word to describe 2020 and this presidential campaign, “unprecedented” would be a top contender.

EICHER: If not the runaway favorite!

REICHARD: Yeah, this White House campaign tosses the old playbook out the window—from debates, to rallies, to door-knocking, this race requires a new playbook. 

No more kissing babies. Or shaking hands.

EICHER: No photo-ops at local diners.

REICHARD: All because of COVID.

Four years from now that probably won’t be a factor…

EICHER: Lord willing!

REICHARD: …but will the lessons learned from this unprecedented campaign carry over into future political contests?

Well, it’s Washington Wednesday, and joining us now to dissect the potential for new campaign trends is Mark Caleb Smith. He’s a political science professor at Cedarville University, a Christian college in Cedarville, Ohio. Welcome back to the program, professor!

MARK CALEB SMITH, GUEST: Hey, it’s always good to be with you. 

REICHARD: During the 19th century, presidential contenders traveled across the country on trains. That’s where we get the term whistle stop tours. And while it’s not the norm these days, campaigning by train isn’t completely passé. Joe Biden took a short whistle stop tour of Pennsylvania last month after the first presidential debate.

But that kind of campaigning, by any mode of transportation, was the exception this year. For months, Joe Biden conducted much of his campaign from his basement! Do you think that’s prompted any kind of paradigm shift when it comes to travel? Will it continue to be a campaign staple post-pandemic?

SMITH: My guess is you will continue to see significant travel post-pandemic. There are just a lot of benefits to travel. It really gives some focus to local volunteers. So when a presidential campaign rolls into a town, then local volunteers have something to get excited about and get motivated about. It’s also a good way to generate enthusiasm with supporters. And so what their campaigns are trying to do is to build a bandwagon. They’re trying to get as many people on as they can, and if they think traveling will have some sort of benefits to that, they’re going to keep doing it. I think they’d have to see some really interesting evidence from the election this year to decide, you know what, maybe we should cut back on travel. You said Joe Biden has conducted much of his campaign in his basement. That’s true, but in 1896, as you may know, William McKinley conducted almost all of his campaign from the front porch of his house. So, William Jennings Bryan is traveling across the country on a train and McKinley is sitting on his front porch campaigning. And so it’s interesting, right? It’s interesting to think about how campaigns have used travel positively and negatively over the years.

REICHARD: Yeah, it is. You know, social media has become as important if not more important than just about all other forms of traditional campaigning in the physical form. That’s obviously not new this year, but the pandemic has perhaps accelerated its importance. Do you think that trend will continue or do anticipate pushback in response to some of the unrelated efforts to reign in Big Tech?

SMITH: I think it’s going to continue. Social media is becoming one of the dominant influences on our campaigns and elections. It’s just an incredibly valuable tool for campaigns to just present information to voters without a filter. There’s no media filter. There’s very little cost involved, at least in terms of the pure mechanics of it. Now, granted it’s going to cost them to maybe put a good shine on those ads, for example, and to make them high production value. But on the whole, it’s cheaper than other forms of communication. I think for me, as a political scientist, I’m interested in seeing whether it fully replaces other forms of media altogether. So, are we going to see television advertising go down dramatically over the years? Are we going to see complete eradication of radio or print advertising? Those seem to be going away to some extent. And so it’d be interesting to see if social media really supplants all other forms of media.

REICHARD: When candidates did travel this year, they focused on battleground states. Of course, there’s always been some of that, but it seemed exacerbated this year because they did so little traveling. But do you think this heavy emphasis on just a few states is going to continue? And if so, what effect will that have on other parts of the campaigns?

SMITH: We’ve been seeing it for a generation, really, almost where the Electoral College map has been divided in such a way that there’s a pretty big block of states that go overwhelmingly Republican, a pretty big block of states that go overwhelmingly Democratic, and then there are just a few true battleground states. I think what this actually does is it’s going to create more and more people saying we need to reform the Electoral College because right now it seems like the campaigns just overwhelmingly focus on a handful of states and the rest of the country gets very little interest. If there’s some kind of reform, then maybe you’d see the campaigns treat the country more holistically. But, yeah, right now I don’t see them altering their behavior because it just makes too much sense. Put all your resources in the biggest states that are the most likely to go your direction.

REICHARD: That’s a pretty big statement you made about reforming the Electoral College. Do you think that is likely to happen?

SMITH: Well, I think that we’re likely to see it happen eventually. I’m not sure how soon it will be. There are arguments, of course, for abolishing it and that would not be reform. That’d be abolition. But abolishing it would go just pure popular vote. I think that would create other sets of problems. But one reform you could have is where instead of having a winner take all system, where now if a campaign wins a state like Ohio by just a handful of votes, well, they win all of Ohio’s Electoral College votes. Instead of that system, you could reform it so that Electoral College votes are distributed by congressional district, for example. And so you would have more contests throughout the country. Instead of 50 contests, you’d have 438 contests, really, 436, really, when you count D.C., we’d have more opportunities for the campaigns to spread their influence over different parts of the country. You could campaign in California, for example, as a Republican because there are pockets of California that are still pretty conservative. It’s just not big enough to win the whole state. So, I think that kind of reform could change the way campaigns behave and it may satisfy some people who are really critical of the Electoral College.

REICHARD: What about the political conventions? Not having them in-person didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to the campaigns. Do you think we’ll see a dramatic change in the way the parties do conventions in the future?

SMITH: That’s a great question, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of data they collect after this election is over and when they talk to their volunteers and their donors and other people, whether they think having these conventions structured virtually is just as effective as having a large, in-person group. If they think that they still have similar levels of enthusiasm and support without a convention, if they can avoid that kind of cost, then I think they’re going to think very hard about the way they do the conventions altogether. But I think they’re going to wait until the election returns come back and then they’re going to assess. But, yeah, I think that’s a very real possibility that we could just see conventions change forever.

REICHARD: What about the debates? It seems like there’s room for reform there.

SMITH: (laughs) You’re being very gracious to say there’s room for reform. I mean, I would argue there’s room for dropping a bomb on the whole thing and starting over because the debates are really good for people who are political junkies, people like me who have a strong sense of what’s happening and you just want to evaluate them and have fun on social media. They really do not do very much for educating voters or presenting us with who these people really are. I mean, it’s really descended into soundbites and a few seconds of information. And I just don’t know how helpful that is. So, I think there’s room for reform, but I think the obstacle to reform is the campaigns like the debates this way. They want to have them low-risk so they can manage the expectations and, in their mind, high reward. For them to do an alternative format presents them with some uncertainties that they’d rather not do. So, I don’t think the debates have been very productive at all and I hope we get a good chance to re-think them.

REICHARD: And finally, professor, what have you found the most surprising thing about the way this campaign has been conducted?

SMITH: You know, what’s been surprising to me is that age is not more of an issue in this campaign. Now, it’s an issue as it relates to Joe Biden to some extent because people have questioned age and its effect on Mr. Biden. But these are gentlemen who are stepping into an office that’s incredibly demanding. It’s rigorous and it can really take a lot of energy and productivity to be president of the United States. And we really aren’t asking these questions right now of these candidates, at least not very well. But maybe what’s happening is since we’re so polarized as an electorate, then people really don’t care so much about these typical things like age or experience, even. Now we just care about does this person agree with me generally? If they’re going to do what I think they’re going to do, then put them in office and the rest of it I just don’t care about. So, if that’s the case, we’re truly into a new day of politics.

REICHARD: Unprecedented times, really. Mark Caleb Smith is a political science professor at Cedarville University. Thanks so much for joining us today!

SMITH: It’s always a pleasure. I really appreciate it, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future.


(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump gestures to supporters after speaking during a campaign rally at MotorSports Management Company, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in West Salem, Wis. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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