Compared with previous cycles, political campaigning has been a little different in the 2020 election.
The novel coronavirus that spurred the Covid-19 pandemic has killed at least 218,000 Americans since February. And, of course, all that is happening in spite of the shutdown measures, including in Santa Cruz County, where the disease has killed 23 people and led to 181 people being hospitalized.
In the race for Santa Cruz County’s 1st District supervisor seat, none of that has stopped each of the two candidates from walking precincts to connect with voters. However, both incumbent Supervisor John Leopold and challenger Manu Koenig have been donning masks, knocking on doors and backing up several feet before anyone answers. Voters have been eager to talk, Koenig explains. “We’ve found that people are really receptive,” he says.
Leopold, for his part, says that about 90% of the times he knocks on a door someone answers it. Some voters will put a mask on before answering; some do not, he says. Others ask him to simply leave the political literature on the doormat, so they can read it later. “It’s a very unusual campaign. Obviously in the times we’re in, everything’s unusual,” Leopold says.
The pandemic has caused politicians at all levels to change how they run. At the national level, organizers cancelled a recently scheduled presidential debate because of President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. On the other side of the presidential race, the campaign to elect Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced Oct. 1 that it would resume precinct walking in some swing states. The news came after months of putting many aspects of in-person campaigning on hold.
In the Santa Cruz City Council race, the pandemic created a split in terms of strategy. Councilmember Martine Watkins—a former mayor, who’s running for reelection—is one of six candidates who decided not to knock on doors this year.
She says she takes no issue with other politicians who took different tacks, but she made her call jointly with her family and with her campaign staff.
“We’re really trying to lead with public health and safety in that way and try to respect people’s space,” Watkins says.
Meanwhile, three other City Council candidates have, in fact, been knocking on doors.
City Councilmember Sandy Brown, nonprofit executive Kayla Kumar, and nonprofit media director Kelsey Hill have all been traversing neighborhoods in an effort to get to know voters face to face. Like Leopold and Koenig, they say they’ve been masking up, keeping their distance and picking up positive feedback along the way from interested voters. The door-to-door efforts have been rather limited, compared to other years, though, Brown says.
Hill says she thinks many Santa Cruzans are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” from months of predominantly digital interactions.
“It feels like people have a hunger to connect with the candidates they’re voting for,” she says.
Additionally, there are five other candidates in the City Council field: grant writer Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Downtown Association Operations Director Sonja Brunner, scientist Elizabeth Conlan, homeless activist Alicia Kuhl and nonprofit executive director Maria Cadenas. Some of these candidates have been dropping off door hangers and other literature at people’s houses. But they all say they’ve decided to forgo door-knocking this election season due to concerns about limiting the spread of Covid-19.
In total, there are nine Santa Cruz City Council candidates. All of them say year’s unusual circumstances have forced them to adjust their strategies. For instance, the pandemic puts a higher premium on Zoom forums and social media, they say.
“It’s just a different campaign,” Cadenas says. “We’re doing a lot more Zooms and video calls and using social media, phone banking—whatever we can do to connect with people.”