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Democratic Presidential Campaigns Adapt To Coronavirus Concerns


Election years typically mean big political rallies and candidates addressing giant crowds. All that is changing because of the pandemic, although political debate continues, including about the pandemic. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out today shows fewer than half of Americans say the federal government is doing enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The Democratic presidential candidates are trying to make the case that they would govern better, although they're making that case remotely. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start by going backwards.


JOE BIDEN: Hello, Detroit.


GONYEA: That's what campaigns sounded like just over one week ago. And this...


ELIZABETH WARREN: I will stay as long as you want, and we'll do selfies forever.

GONYEA: And lots of this - volunteers just knocking on people's doors.

GARRETT: Hi there.


GARRETT: My name's Garrett (ph). I'm with the Bernie Sanders campaign.


GONYEA: But now its welcome to the virtual town hall, technical glitches and all as Joe Biden experienced days ago when the feed from his event broke up.


JOE BIDEN: I'm sorry this has been such a disjointed effort here because of the connections.

GONYEA: We can all relate if we've ever had troubles on FaceTime or Skype or whatever. Other attempts have gone more smoothly but still with a disclaimer.


JOE BIDEN: I know this isn't the way any of us would prefer to connect and engage. But I look forward to answering your questions.

GONYEA: The format does lend itself to being untraditional, like this Bernie Sanders virtual fireside chat on Saturday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Senator, there's a great debate online about whether this is a furnace or a stove. What is this?

BERNIE SANDERS: Why are you asking me a hard question?


SANDERS: It's an old stove.

GONYEA: Last night, Sanders did an online version of one of his big rallies, complete with musical guests, including Neil Young.


NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Keep me searching for a heart of gold

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Jill Biden has been doing tele-events (ph) with her husband and on her own. This was also last night.


JILL BIDEN: You know, every four years, we talk about how important the election is, but we've never seen the stakes in such tangible and immediate terms before.

GONYEA: The coronavirus is changing campaigns in many ways. In-person fundraising events are out. Big training sessions for volunteers - out. No more neighborhood canvassing. It's even gotten very hard to open a local campaign office. Daniel Kreiss of the University of North Carolina says that last problem creates its own ripples.

DANIEL KREISS: Opening that local fuel office means community events that unfold over months. Sometimes that means dinners and lunches. It means organizing events. It means hosting forums to get involved in local issues.

GONYEA: And then there are the outside groups that do a ton to help candidates up and down the ballot. Jim Slone is a longtime United Auto Workers activist in northern Ohio.

JIM SLONE: It's been strange. It's been a strange election season.

GONYEA: Slone says the effect really hits the many, many campaign workers who are retirees and potentially at greater risk from the virus.

SLONE: You know, I'm 73, and we got some people in their 80s and - well, we don't have large meetings anymore. We went to social media, sharing things on Facebook, sending out text messages to people.

GONYEA: Daniel Kreiss says campaigns have been increasingly going digital for 20 years. But he says there's a reason rallies and other old-school techniques have survived. They generate important voter data, and they create community.

KREISS: You can't have a Facebook advertisement replace the experience of actually being at a candidate rally, the energy and the emotion and the excitement, the social experience of actually attending a candidate rally, feeding off the energy of the crowd.

GONYEA: Once the current crisis passes, Kreiss suspects some of the effects will linger right through to the general election in November. Will people want to jump back into big crowds by then? Will door knocking become OK again? There are a lot of unknowns. So for now, it's virtual town halls and campaigns just trying to adapt.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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