By Sharon Bernstein and Makini Brice
(Reuters) – When stay-at-home orders sparked by the coronavirus forced him to find new ways to reach young voters ahead of the November U.S. election, Felix Clarke turned to an online computer game.
The New Hampshire college student logged in to Minecraft, dressed his avatar in the blue T-shirt worn by canvassers for NextGen America, the progressive group for which he works, and strolled virtually up to other players, making his pitch.
“I pretty much used the same conversation starters I’d use in-person talking to other students at Plymouth State,” Clarke said via a NextGen spokeswoman. “We talked in-game mostly about how to vote, why as the largest chunk of eligible voters it is so important that young people make their voices heard.”
Political groups large and small have turned to digital campaigning amid the social distancing restrictions affecting almost all Americans, using texts, social media and video chat to carve out a new form of organizing as the U.S. presidential election looms.
The election pits Republican Donald Trump against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a campaign taking place against the all-consuming backdrop of the pandemic.
Republican organizers switched from holding packed, raucous rallies to setting up livestreams and social media events with just 24-hours notice, said Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso. About 1,000 staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers have switched to digital outreach, he said, while others make voice calls from their homes instead of crowded phone banks.
“We are hosting virtual events, training members of the Trump Neighborhood Teams online, activating the massive volunteer network to make calls on behalf of the President, and continuing our efforts to register voters online,” Farnaso said in an email.
Biden’s campaign built a studio in the candidate’s home in Delaware, where the former vice president streams podcasts and town halls, and makes television news appearances.
Organizers recruit volunteers via text messages, and hold conference calls and video chats with voters led by such backers as strategist Symone Sanders, said Biden spokesman Vedant Patel.
The Democratic party has trained 7,000 digital organizers over the past month and was connecting with voters using social media handles among other methods, chair Tom Perez said Friday.
“We’re not knocking on doors, but we have our virtual clipboards in hand, and we are engaging voters where they consume their news, talking about what we’re fighting for,” Perez told reporters.
Reaching voters digitally – particularly younger voters who may be adept at technology and new media but jaded about politics – has involved a steep learning curve for some groups, and taken a lot of creativity, organizers said.
Naseem Makiya, the founder of Outvote, an application for digital mobilizing, said his company had seen a dramatic uptick in inquiries.
“When it’s safe to organize door knocks and hold events, I think people will be really excited to go back to doing that … (but) now they’ll know there are these options digitally that can be just as impactful,” he said.
When Ohio’s shelter-in-place order began in March, gay rights activist Brad Henry cast about for a way to salvage voter engagement efforts he had planned.
At a neighbor’s suggestion, Henry said, he decided to livestream dance parties involving DJs and bands to keep up that contact. On Saturday, his latest event featured drag performers Maja Jera and Jennifer Lynn as hosts and raised funds for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, also made an appearance.
“Be a voter,” she said via video from her home. “It’s how we create a healthy democracy where everyone’s voice is heard.”
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Makini Brice in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Daniel Wallis)