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Coronavirus Pandemic Throws Uncertainty Into Local Campaigns

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Campaign headquarters are usually filled with the nonstop motion of excited volunteers and harried election staff. But on a recent Sunday, Shannon Sneed, who’s running for city council president, sat alone at her headquarters’ conference table, making calls to voters as campaign volunteers and staffers followed suit in their own homes.

Under the novel coronavirus pandemic, the nature of local campaigning has changed: On any other sunny weekend afternoon, the freshman city council member and her team would have been knocking on doors throughout the city to connect with voters. Instead, Sneed and every other candidate in major city races have cancelled the usual barrage of rallies, fundraisers and door-knocking outings in order to limit the spread of the virus. 

“This is serious,” the Democrat said. “We don’t want to spread it to other people. We want to do whatever we can to protect the citizens of Baltimore City.”

Sneed, along with other candidates, has shifted away from one-on-one time to phone banking -- a safe way to connect with voters when everyone is encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Sneed spends hours each week calling likely primary voters. 

On one recent call, 75-year-old Essie Smith listened as Sneed touted her legislative resume, including the passage of a bill she introduced that banned the use of gag orders in police brutality lawsuits.

Afterward, Smith told Sneed about her foremost concern: drugs. 

“The drug dealers on my corners… that’s the only problem I have round here,” she told the politician, who wrote Smith’s concerns down in a notebook.

Sneed said she’s making genuine connections with voters over the phone. But as a grassroots candidate who relies heavily on door-knocking, she misses face-to-face contact.

“Nothing will replace that one-on-one conversation,” Sneed said. “This candidate has knocked on your door: she's interested in what you have to say, she wants to hear about your concerns.”

When Gov. Larry Hogan postponed Maryland’s primaries from April 28 to June 2, candidates received a double-edged sword of more time to appeal to voters but the need to fund five extra weeks on the trail. June 2’s results matter: In Baltimore, registered Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans.

It's always hard to run in a lower profile race... but that is magnified so many times right now.

Making connections in this cultural moment will be extremely difficult, said Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, because at this point in the pandemic, most voters are focused on the unknown. 

“It's always hard to run in a lower profile race and challenge incumbents because voters’ attentions are generally elsewhere, but that is magnified so many times right now,” Schlozman said.

Instead, voters are focused on their livelihoods and keeping their families safe, he said. 

“If there is some time for politics, it is most likely going to be for national politics, which is always the easiest to break through,” Schlozman said, “but especially at a time when there are regular televised briefings with the president.”  

Local candidates that break through that noise will likely be the ones whose coronavirus response strategies appeal to the broadest range of voters, he said.

That’s probably why candidates have cancelled events and fundraisers before being called on to do so by the government, said John Willis, a former Maryland Secretary of State and the former chair of Maryland's Special Committee on Voting Systems and Election Procedures.

“When we're electing public officials, we elect them because we think we can trust them. Voters are going to be noticing how candidates act,” Willis said. “I think that's why they're acting cautiously.” 

Willis, who is now the executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs, said the candidates will use the extra time before the primary to recalibrate their messaging, especially as it pertains to the pandemic. 

“The people who are doing the planning need to take not today into consideration, but what will conditions be in June, and prepare for multiple kinds of situations,” he said.

Situations such as a solely mail-in ballot. This week, the Maryland State Board of Education recommended to Gov. Hogan that the June 2 election, like the April 28 election to replace the late Elijah Cummings in the 7th Congressional district, be conducted only through the mail. Their recommendation is not final; they have until April 3 to submit a formal plan to Hogan.

“Given all of the uncertainty about the public health and concerns of everyday citizens, those concerns may change as we get close to June,” Willis said.

Schlozman and Willis both said that voters can expect lots of phone calls and fundraising emails from City Hall hopefuls for now, and TV ads and mailers in late May.

Sneed said she’ll utilize phone banking, live streaming, social media and other ways to reach voters who are mostly indoors -- and hopes to show them what she says public service is all about.

“This is a great opportunity to show what leadership looks like,” Sneed said. “It’s giving out correct information, staying in contact, but also running a campaign.”

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