The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump are campaigning, just as the race for the presidency narrows to a few top candidates. And the alternatives will cost the candidates millions of dollars.

It’s an added challenge for all three campaigns. With the Democratic race down to two candidates -- and with Biden solidly in the lead -- interest in the contest would naturally shrink somewhat. Combine that with the pandemic’s overwhelming impact on the economy and daily life, getting voters’ attention is going to be difficult -- and expensive.

“It’s going to be a tearing up of the playbook,” said Teddy Goff, Barack Obama’s digital director in 2012 and a founding partner of Precision Strategies, a communications and digital agency.

The campaigns will have to reinvent long-planned tactics, finding new -- and likely more expensive -- ways to excite and motivate supporters and get attention from a news media consumed by virus coverage.

Getting Creative
Biden and Sanders, both extra vulnerable to the virus themselves given that they are in their late 70s, have reduced the amount of handshaking, baby holding and posing for photos that is expected in a traditional campaign. Trump, as the incumbent president with Secret Service protection, already is afforded a bit of physical distance from the public.

The Biden campaign said Thursday in a memo to staff that they could work remotely, and that the operation’s offices around the country would close to the public. The Sanders campaign also asked its staff to work from home and said it “will no longer hold large events or door-to-door canvasses, instead moving to digital formats and outreach wherever possible.”

The candidates will have to get creative with digital tools and buy a lot more advertising to maintain voter enthusiasm all while balancing totally reconfigured budgets, according to digital communications experts and political strategists.

Media buys are already the biggest expense for presidential campaigns. Sanders has spent $69.5 million on ads, including $48.5 million on broadcast and cable and $19.2 million on digital, according to Advertising Analytics. Biden’s campaign has spent $31 million, but is set to start spending more with ads that started running Thursday.

The campaigns will undoubtedly increase their advertising if they’re not getting media attention from rallies and town halls that would earn coverage. But that would ironically make the advertising even more expensive, since the rates are set by demand.

“Digital and television are now indisputably the site of most campaign activity,” said Joshua Darr, a professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. “The risk of holding rallies is just not worth it, I can’t imagine many headlines worse for a campaign than ‘Rally goers Sickened.’”

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