Los Angeles Times - 03.04.2020

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jor election is approaching,
college campuses are des-
erted and Democratic activ-
ists seeking to register
young voters can’t walk up to
any actual human beings.
So they are turning to av-
Activists at NextGen
America, a Democratic su-
per PAC, are scoping out vir-
tual worlds — video games
like Animal Crossing and
Minecraft — as they seek to
engage idle college students
and other Gen Zers in one-
on-one conversations about
the real-world pursuit of vot-
“We are interested in any
virtual world where you can
walk up to people and ask,
‘Hey, are you registered?’
just like you would in the
physical world,” said Ben
Wessel, executive director of
the group. “We are letting
the creativity of the genera-
tion direct us.”
Digital experimentation
is playing out at an unprece-
dented scale right now as po-
litical operatives try to pull
off a massive pivot in the way
presidential campaigns are
run. A lethal virus has made
obsolete the door-to-door
solicitations and candidate
rallies that defined election
seasons for decades, so pres-
idential campaigns and
groups backing them are
racing to innovate.
“This is the fastest we
have ever had to change as a
society, both psychological
and practical,” said Andrew
Bleeker, who led digital mar-
keting for Barack Obama’s
presidential campaigns and
is now president of the firm
Bully Pulpit Interactive. “We
don’t even gear up for wars
this fast. ... It is going to
breed innovation.”
The vast armies of side-
lined door knockers are be-
ing put to work finding po-
tential voters virtually. Ad
makers who would normally
be out filming the candi-
dates at big events are now
rewriting their playbook for
clients in lockdown.
In the most high-profile
impact yet, the Democratic
National Committee an-
nounced Thursday that it
would postpone the party’s
national presidential nomi-
nating convention in Mil-
waukee from mid-July until
the week of Aug. 17, to allow
more time to determine “the
most appropriate structure”
for an event that could end
up going virtual if large pub-
lic gatherings are still a pub-
lic health hazard in late sum-
“We are going to end up
with something that looks
very different and new,” said
Nicco Mele, who was an early
Democratic digital pioneer
and former director of Har-
vard’s Shorenstein Center
on Media, Politics and Pub-
lic Policy. “Exactly what will
it look like? Everyone is try-
ing to figure that out.”
A perceived advantage
the Trump campaign has in
this new territory could
prove fragile. Trump’s oper-

atives have built an intimi-
dating and costly digital
machine around unprece-
dented social media micro-
targeting. It is fueled by a
conservative media ecosys-
tem that reliably draws in
masses of voters who help
amplify Trump’s message.
That ecosystem is show-
ing signs of strain, however,
as voters seek out reliable in-
formation about the virus,
which some of the leading
outlets on the right failed to
provide when they initially
dismissed its danger.
Republicans are now
bulking up their digital in-
Republican National
Committee volunteers made
1.4 million voter contacts
during last Saturday’s Na-
tional Day of Action, using a
phone script that starts by
asking voters about their
health and offers informa-
tion about medical care re-
sources before they begin
detailing Trump’s efforts in
the pandemic.
The GOP’s chief volun-
teer training program, the
Trump Victory Leadership
Initiative, has gone virtual
and hasn’t slowed in the
process. There were 312
events that trained 1,390 vol-
unteers during its first week
For Democrats, the pub-
lic health crisis tests in real
time how far they have come
in closing the digital politics
The Democratic Na-
tional Committee has seen a
sixfold increase in requests
for its digital organizing
training program.
In Florida, Democrats
are sending texts to more
than a million voters to urge
them to register to vote by
mail. Elizabeth Warren’s for-
mer presidential campaign
staff unleashed a mother
lode of new technology when
it open-sourced some of the
campaign apps and organiz-
ing tools it had developed.
In Wisconsin, a key swing
state that holds a primary
on Tuesday, Democrats say
they have found that the loss
of door knockers’ powerful
face-to-face conversations is
mitigated by an unprece-
dented eagerness of voters
to chat with volunteers cold-
calling or pinging them on-
“There are more people
home to pick up the phone
and look at Facebook mes-
sages,” said Ben Wikler, the

state party chairman. Some
pollsters have also reported
rising response rates as vot-
ers stuck at home appear
more willing to answer their
“People have become
more engaged because this
is the crisis of a lifetime for
most people walking the
earth, and everybody has
got more time on their
hands,” said Steve Schale,
an advisor to the pro-Biden
super PAC Unite the Coun-
“Everyone is trying new
things out,” said Tara Mc-
Gowan, who heads Acro-
nym, a group that advises
progressives on digital cam-
paigning and has launched
an affiliated super PAC.
“This will force candidates
to figure out where voters
are spending time online, as
opposed to just seeing this
monolithic internet and
checking a box” once the
campaign has an online
McGowan warned that
voters will quickly grow fa-
tigued with Zoom town
halls, forcing candidates to
get more creative about
finding and connecting with
potential voters.
Former Vice President
Joe Biden may have at-
tracted a lot of attention for
launching a podcast, Mc-
Gowan notes, “but that is for
people who are already with
you. You need to put the can-
didate in front of voters
where they are.”
The digital field lieuten-
ants of both parties are
working to channel voter in-
terest into deeper interac-
tions that will mobilize new
activists. NextGen, for ex-
ample, drew the interest of
@frizzandfrillzz, a hair-
styling influencer (her ex-
pertise is curls), who began
guiding her 42,000 Insta-
gram followers through the
steps of registering to vote in
Wisconsin. A young organ-
izer in New Hampshire lev-
eraged the surge of interest
in TikTok dance videos into
180,000 views for her voting-
themed performance.
“The reality is we are in a
pandemic,” said Shola Far-
ber, co-founder of the Tues-
day Company, which helps
progressive groups organize
and mobilize their support-
ers online. “There are no
other options. If you are go-
ing to do organizing this cy-
cle, you have to adapt. ...
Democrats have armies of

supporters who want to be
helpful. We need to recog-
nize they are waiting to be
And those that already
are active need to be redi-
rected. The signature strate-
gy for the big Democratic su-
per PAC American Bridge
was sending “trackers” out
to stalk GOP candidates in
public and record their every
move. Now they have re-
treated behind computer
screens, where they are
tracking digitally and diving
deep into records and re-
cordings of past candidate
events such as city council
and local zoning board
The biggest challenge for
the presidential campaigns
—and also one of the biggest
areas of potential innova-
tion — could prove to be
their national conventions
scheduled for the summer.
The DNC announced
postponement of the Mil-
waukee convention after
Biden expressed public
doubts that it would be able
to proceed as planned.
“I doubt whether the
Democratic convention is
going to be able to be held in
mid-July, early July,” Biden
told Jimmy Fallon on “The
Tonight Show.” “I think it’s
going to have to move into
August,” he said, adding
that “we have to be prepared
for the alternative” of not
having a traditional in-per-
son convention.
The DNC, in announcing
the postponement, said it
had confirmed that the con-
vention venue and hotel ac-
commodations would be
available during the new Au-
gust dates, but indicated
that they were laying alter-
native, virtual plans as party
leaders monitor the impact
of the pandemic.
Not all Democrats are
“Conventions will occur
in some form,” Bleeker said.
“If they don’t occur in a con-
vention center, I don’t think
that limits what is possible
in terms of connecting the
nation and bringing the
party closer together.”
Necessity may create an
opportunity to reinvent the
convention and include
thousands, maybe millions,
more people, he said.
“The people in the room
won’t just be activists or
donors,” Bleeker said.
“There will be nothing to buy
your way into.”

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT Joe Biden holds a virtual campaign event on March 13 in Chicago. The event
was switched to virtual because of coronavirus fears, and the same may happen to the Democratic convention.

Scott OlsonGetty Images

No rallies? Activists find

voters in online worlds

DEMOCRATS are texting voters to urge them to register. Above, former candi-
date Michael R. Bloomberg is seen on a phone as he speaks in New York.

Johannes EiseleAFP/Getty Images

The pandemic pushes

politicking into video

games and could force

a virtual convention.

By Evan Halper
and Janet Hook

cameras tracked him, Presi-
dent Trump walked from
the Rose Garden podium to
a nearby table for the dram-
atic unveiling of a new and
improved product, one sup-
posedly able to deliver fast-
er, better results.
As the head of the Food
and Drug Administration
extolled the coronavirus
testing kit, Trump opened a
box, carefully pulled out the
device and held it up for
viewers to see on Monday,
like a scene from a Home
Shopping Network show.
After decades of slapping
his name on skyscrapers,
steaks, bottled water and
silk ties, Trump remains a
salesman at heart, and he’s
used his daily pandemic
briefings at times to push
new products, promote un-
proven remedies and make
exaggerated promises.
Even as he warned Tues-
day of “very, very painful”
weeks ahead, possibly in-
volving 100,000 American
deaths, he promised a “burst
of light” once the pandemic
“Trump is most comfort-
able when he’s selling,” said
Michael D’Antonio, who
wrote a biography of Trump.
“And when he doesn’t have
something to sell, he sells
himself. And that’s really the
product that he always
While Trump has praised
the doctors at his side,
chiefly Dr. Anthony Fauci,
who heads the National In-
stitute of Allergy and Infec-
tious Diseases, and Dr.
Deborah Birx, the White
House response coordina-
tor, he more often has shown
disdain for specialists,
whether it involves global
warming or nuclear di-
“He’s more comfortable
around salesmen than he is
around scientists and physi-
cians,” D’Antonio said. “He
doesn’t understand this idea
of seeking honest data so
you can get your arms
around a problem that’s dif-
Trump has promised a
“very advanced” corona-
virus vaccine in “record
time,” for example. Al-
though a crash program has
found potential candidates,
experts say necessary test-
ing, dosing and production
of a new vaccine will take at
least a year.
He has announced
“tremendous progress” on a
nationwide website for co-
ronavirus testing even
though the website re-
mained a pilot projectin the
San Francisco Bay Area.
And the president has
touted drug regimens to
treat COVID-19 patients,
saying they “could be a
tremendous breakthrough,”
even though they have not
gone through approved
clinical trials to ensure they
are effective.
The drugs, hydroxy-
chloroquine and chloro-
quine, are normally pre-
scribed as a prophylaxis or
treatment for malaria and
lupus, and some doctors fear
the president’s endorse-
ment will lead to shortages
for patients who rely on
Despite the concerns, the
FDA approved the two
drugs for emergency use
during the pandemic, and
Trump announced Monday
that his administration had
secured millions of doses.
Trump has rejected bi-
partisan criticism that his
administration botched its
early response to the co-
ronavirus by failing to make
testing widely available, and
that it is still struggling to
supply desperately needed

masks, ventilators and other
equipment to hospitals.
On Tuesday, Maryland
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Repub-
lican, dismissed Trump’s
claim that coronavirus test-
ing kits are now widely avail-
able as “just not true,” add-
ing, “No state has enough
And New York Gov. An-
drew Cuomo, a Democrat,
compared the lack of federal
leadership to coordinate dis-
tribution of medical supplies
to “being on EBay with 50
other states, bidding on a
ventilator.” New York has
the nation’s worst outbreak,
and Cuomo has said his
state needs 30,000 ventila-
Trump has lavishly
praised himself for “tremen-
dous” work while routinely
blaming others — including
China, former presidents,
governors and reporters —
for any problems. As in his
business career — which in-
cludes a string of bankrupt-
cies and lawsuits claiming
fraud — he’s glossed over
bad news and moved on.
“You never cop to any-
thing, and you always de-
clare that you’ve won, and
you always point the finger
at somebody else,” said
Gwenda Blair, another
Trump biographer. “And
he’s remarkably good at
Trump’s approach is evi-
dent in his shifting timeline
for beating back the pan-
A month ago, he sug-
gested the virus would dis-
appear “like a miracle” as
soon as warm weather came
in April. But on Monday he
extended social distancing
guidelinesuntil April 30, ac-
knowledging the virus may
not peak for several weeks.
It’s an approach that
many American voters saw
for the first time in the 2016
presidential race, Trump’s
first official foray into poli-
tics after making his name
as a New York developer and
reality television star. At
times he used his campaign
to promote his products and
During the Republican
presidential primary, he
held a news conference with
a table piled high with
Trump-labeled wine, bot-
tled water and steaks in an
effort to rebut charges that
his businesses were unsuc-
“Trump steaks, where
are the steaks? Do we have
the steaks?” he said. “We
have Trump steaks. And by
the way, you want to take
one, we charge you about,
what, 50 bucks a steak?”
At that point, Trump
steaks were no longer avail-
able for purchase, and the
meat on the table appeared
to be from a different brand.
Like any aggressive
salesman, Trump enjoys a
good cross promotion, and
he’s invited business leaders
to the White House to bur-
nish their own brands while
showering him with praise.
At Monday’s briefing,
Trump introduced Mike
Lindell, the founder of My
Pillow, which has agreed to
produce cotton face masks
during the pandemic.
“Boy, do you sell those pil-
lows. That’s unbelievable
what you do,” Trump said.
After plugging his own
company, Lindell plugged
Trump too.
“God gave us grace on
Nov. 8, 2016” — the day
Trump was elected — “to
change the course we were
on,” he said.
The president then in-
vited executives from Hon-
eywell, Jockey International,
Procter & Gamble and
United Technologies to pro-
mote their own work and
praise his administration.
Trump hosted a similar
parade of corporate execu-
tives on March 13, a perform-
ance that led to a brief boost
in the stock market after
sharp declines.
The next day, Trump said
he was “honored” by the
market rebound and sug-
gested it made financial
sense for companies to asso-
ciate themselves with his ad-
“Those great companies
that were there, they
couldn’t have been too un-
happy either, when you
think about it, because
they’re all very big, publicly
listed companies,” he said.
“So they did a good job.”
It was a sign, at least in
the president’s eyes, that the
Trump brand hadn’t lost its

The salesman

in chief, at time

of pandemic

Trump uses the daily

coronavirus briefings

to tout products and

unproven remedies.

By Chris Megerian

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