Courtesy Elijah Manley

Coronavirus Is Changing How Young Candidates Campaign

'The best thing I can do both as a person and as a candidate is to work right now and actually try to help people'

By Sarah Emily Baum

With seven months to go before the November general election, Elijah Manley should be knocking on doors and courting constituents. Instead, the 21-year-old college student and congressional candidate in Florida’s 94th legislative district is in isolation because he likely has COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Before I fell sick, we had just launched the campaign on February 26,” Manley told MTV News. “It looked promising.” In just two months, his team raised $10,000 and amassed an additional $20,000 in pledges. They’d just signed a lease for an office space in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Now, the office sits vacant, donors are pulling out, and Manley, who is running to be the youngest state representative in Florida’s history, has had to step back.

“Interns are coming in to campaign,” Manley said. “But we’re telling them not only to social distance — now I’m telling them I can’t be there to help you. Your candidate, the product that we’re selling to the people, cannot be around.”

As of the writing of this piece, the CDC has reported over 277,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, about 11,000 of which are in Manley’s home state of Florida, but experts caution that this number is a drastic undercount. It doesn’t include people like Manley, who know they have been in close quarters with someone who tested positive for the virus and who have the telltale symptoms — including fever and shortness of breath — but were denied testing because they didn’t fall into a prioritized demographic, such as health care workers or those over the age of 65. The figure also doesn’t include asymptomatic carriers, which may encompass as many as 25 percent of the infected population.

While a series of statewide stay-at-home orders have followed the spread of the virus across the country, some elected officials, such as Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, were reticent to contradict the president in doing so. As recently as late March, news outlets documented massive influxes of tourists to the Florida shore — which is all the more reason for Manley to rethink how he connects with his potential constituents. There’s no telling how many people they may come in contact with were he to meet with them in person. As with everyone else, it’s safest if he stays home.

Yet even candidates who aren’t sick themselves are feeling the impact of a pandemic on the campaign trail. Social distancing protocols dictate candidates can no longer engage in many typical political activities, such as canvassing and hosting rallies or town halls. One of the most significant blows to Manley’s candidacy are the bans on door-knocking, which disable him from collecting in-person signatures to put him on the ballot. If he fails to meet the quota, he will have to pay a $1,700 fee to be listed — and even though state lawmakers recently amended the policy to allow for digital petitions in the wake of COVID-19, they denied requests from local candidates to extend the deadline for submission. In addition, the pandemic has led to massive unemployment rates, making fundraising efforts for candidates like Manley — who rely on smaller, individual donors — even more difficult.

According to Martín Diego Garcia, the vice president of strategic planning and training at the Campaign Workshop, both local and federal candidates may be impacted, but in very different ways. “The pandemic is going to be attached to the federal elections much more closely than the local elections in terms of what Congress is and isn't doing what the White House is and isn't doing,” he told MTV News. “In local elections I think [there's] going to be much more confusion around when elections are happening, how elections are happening and less about the actual narrative of the pandemic itself.” For example, presidential candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) have used their influence to push for coronavirus relief legislation, and former Vice President Joe Biden hosted a town hall addressing the crisis on CNN.

The impacts of COVID-19 on both local and national races may run deeper than mere campaign tactics. It’s indicative of a wider trend, and has the potential to change both the mechanics and the outcomes of a variety of races around the country. As of April 1, Puerto Rico and 15 states have delayed primary elections, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has co-signed federal efforts to facilitate mail-in ballots, and officials are still debating whether in-person voting can be safely held at all given CDC guidelines against large gatherings. The Democratic National Committee also postponed its convention from July to August.

In addition to massive hits to fundraising efforts and other traditional campaign activities, such as canvassing and hosting rallies, this pandemic is radically changing the political landscape. One of the greatest determinants of a successful campaign right now, Garcia explained, is a candidate’s ability to adapt to organizing while social distancing — most notably, through digital means. “As youth voters, we are currently at the forefront of what it means to live in a full digital age,” he told MTV News. “[Young people know] how to utilize digital and online engagement to the fullest capacity, and I think this is the time for those young leaders to really step up and own that space.”

A primary example of this tactic is Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old congressional candidate in Tacoma, Washington, who boasts over 140,000 followers across TikTok and Twitter. Collins’s home state was the first to face an outbreak in the United States, reporting the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus on January 21. By early March, the state began reporting a steady increase in fatalities, and many workplaces and schools saw closures.

“My initial thoughts were concern for the safety of prisoners, both citizens and the undocumented people being detained in the Northwest Detention Center, which is right down the street from my house,” Collins said. “Conditions are already bad in the detention centers and I knew they weren't going to take necessary precautions to protect the detainees.” He also says he worried for his own family and friends who are undocumented, because they can’t collect unemployment benefits from the government.

Unlike some other candidates at his level, Collins was able to transition from in-person to digital-only organizing relatively seamlessly. “We have used the internet very effectively. I don't really have to go into panic mode and campaign,” Collins told MTV News. “I have a very strong connection between my supporters and myself online. We have been able to raise money the exact same way I always have.” He’s used a toolbox of online organizing tools including social media, Discord, phone banking, and tele-town halls to connect with his voter base and reach out to potential supporters.

Those connections may pay off in dividends, especially as voters become more frustrated with any perceived inaction by their current representatives. According to Garcia, this is where first-time candidates and primarying challengers can shine. “In times past when disaster has struck, those in office are often held to a higher standard than the folks who are the challengers sort of running on the outside, and the challenges running on the outside having an easier narrative and an easier opportunity to blame the folks on the other side,” he said. “But if things aren't going well or creating more complications, I think it's a much easier narrative for a challenger to say, ‘I would do a better job.’”

Both Collins and Manley have pivoted their campaign efforts in the wake of the pandemic. Before falling ill himself, Manley had plans to collect masks and personal protective equipment for hospital workers, while Collins has used his online platform to help organize a nationwide mutual aid effort and circulate rent strike petitions. According to his campaign, the movement has amassed 2 million signatures to date. They stand among a growing cohort of candidates who have changed tracks from campaign organizing to virus relief organizing. It serves as a real-time test of politics, values, and leadership that helps voters decide: When crisis hits, who can lead? Where do their priorities lie?

For Manley, who realized he was uninsured only after going to the hospital for testing, the experience has furthered his belief in the importance of Medicare for All. “I’m afraid of what that hospital bill might be,” he said. “Every day on the internet, I see somebody posting a hospital bill for $4,000 or $20,000. I understand how they feel.”

Meanwhile, Collins says the crisis also exemplifies the need for universal basic income and hazard pay for essential workers. “This is a very chaotic time in our country and I think people are more worried about whether or not [they] are going to be able to pay rent rather than who they're going to vote for,” he said. “The best thing I can do both as a person and as a candidate is to work right now and actually try to help people, and I don't think people will forget that.”