Students Take a More Active Role in Campaigning as Political Campaigns Move Online

Sam Ferrera, Grade 11, Staff Writer

How do you run effective political campaigns in an increasingly digital world? This election cycle saw that question get answered in an expedited fashion, as the coronavirus forced candidates up and down the ballot to overhaul their campaign strategy and transition to online measures. This switch to digital campaigning changed the way campaigns ran - for this cycle and, perhaps, many election cycles to come.


The switch to digital campaigning exposed candidates’ digital prowess and skyrocketed those who otherwise might have had minimal media coverage. Senator Ed Markey’s (D-Mass.) Democratic primary campaign is one example of digital success. Markey was forced to campaign digitally while already looking at a possible primary defeat to challenger Joe Kennedy III (D-MA 4). Markey was fighting tough odds. He is 35 years older than Kennedy in a race that Kennedy had been able to frame as “old versus young.” Before this race, no Kennedy had ever lost a race in Massachusetts; Markey was up against one of the most iconic American political dynasties. And yet, Markey won the primary carrying a lead among voters under 30. He thanked the “Markeyverse” in his victory speech — an assembly of 100 or so Twitter accounts all making digital content for his campaign.


Josephine O’Brien, an executive director of political youth organization Coalition Z, was a member of this Markeyverse. In her eyes, Markey was so successful because “young people got really engaged in producing digital content, organizing other young people on the internet, and then turning this digital engagement into real volunteering.”


Sitting at home in New York City, O’Brien and many other out-of-state volunteers were able to get involved in the campaign in the midst of coronavirus lockdowns. “I was the lead field fellow on the Southcoast, so I recruited and trained volunteers and community leads, strategized on how to reach our goals in our region, and made sure the other fellows were reaching their goals,” she said.


Students like O’Brien contributed to digital campaigns across the country. Home from school due to lockdown orders, they found themselves in a unique position to work on campaigns without having to overcome the typical barriers of geography or time. With little to do but stay inside, anyone could find a candidate they supported, volunteer or intern for them, and provide an unprecedented source of voter outreach and digital presence.


Ed Markey’s Senate campaign was catapulted to victory by a youth-led Twitter campaign, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of digital campaigning.


This huge emphasis on digital work and outreach is a departure from traditional campaigning. “Most of the campaign work I did pre-COVID involved being in the community the candidate was running in,” said Charlotte Ritz-Jack, the co-executive director of Coalition Z and a senior at the High School of American Studies. “I staffed events, did voter outreach, or ran trainings for other volunteers.”


Unlike previous election cycles, candidates for races of all sizes found themselves having to digitize voter outreach. “Hopefully soon campaigns will be able to run offices and do in-person get out the vote efforts,” Ritz-Jack added. “The reliance, however, on purely in-person events and outreach is definitely over.”


The pandemic also created new priorities for campaigns and volunteers. Ritz-Jack found herself adding mutual aid work — providing food and funds for those in need — to her list of campaign work. “I wouldn't necessarily say COVID-19 impacted which campaigns I worked on, but I definitely only chose to support candidates who did a lot of mutual aid work,” she said. “Candidates had to have acknowledged the immediate needs of their community and used their position to alleviate them.”


For Ritz-Jack and O’Brien, the changes that the coronavirus brought to campaigns mark a new era in outreach tactics. “I think this is actually a positive of pandemic campaigning: people were forced to brainstorm new ways to get voters and volunteers involved in campaigns, which led young people to really take a lead in digital organizing,” said O’Brien. “I hope digital organizing remains a major part of campaigning, and I think it will. Young people are so creative with how to organize young people on the internet and engage groups of people who may have been left out of politics previously.”


Ritz-Jack echoed O’Brien’s statement, saying “One aspect of campaigns that has absolutely changed permanently is digital strategy. Campaigns have had to develop aggressive online strategies and embrace social media as a method of reaching voters. That is for the better — making campaigns more connected to younger folks, accessible to a wider audience, and highly interactive.”


Despite the seemingly great upsides of digital organizing, O’Brien still believes that traditional campaign strategy isn’t going away just yet. “We know that in-person, interpersonal connections, like canvassing, is the most effective method of campaigning,” she said. “We’ve already seen the Biden campaign start up canvassing again. Therefore, I think a strong reliance on in-person campaigning will be around for a long time.”


Ritz-Jack also sees the power of in-person campaign work. “There is nothing to compensate for the face-to-face conversations that often are at the heart of a competitive race,” she said. “Working in a campaign office can also have really great collaborative energy which can't completely transfer online.”


There is no doubt that digital campaign work, growing before but accelerated greatly by the coronavirus, will continue to be a great way for students to work for candidates they support and gain political experience for potential careers. Digital campaigns have expanded the need for student volunteers and interns, who are gaining access to more and more diverse campaign roles.


Digital internships can be disconcerting without face-to-face interactions with coworkers or community members. “As a fellow for Ed Markey’s Senate campaign, I spent hours each day on Zoom with the other people working in my region of the state, but it feels really weird that I never met them in real life,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes it was hard to motivate myself to work alone in my bedroom because so much of political organizing is working with the community.”


Still, the opportunities for students to get involved in politics will only increase with further digitalization. “Anyone can be useful to a campaign,” said Ritz-Jack. “Campaigns require a wide breadth of perspectives and expertise. They are a great way to meet like-minded people, learn life skills, and figure out what you're passionate about.”