Guidance from Washington broadly understood by campaigns as a ban on in-person canvassing was the most damaging decision of all—an error that compounded all the others. It seemed to make sense on its face. But it was also—like the defiant lack of mask-wearing at Trump rallies is for Republicans—a form of Democratic brand messaging: They walk in the low-down footsteps of Typhoid Mary, we take the high road with Tony Fauci. Applied to campaigns all across the country, it backfired terribly. Instead of finding ways to safely campaign in swing districts and talk to voters, wearing masks and social distancing, in the weeks before the election—as did Joe Biden’s presidential campaign—Democratic campaigns had to rely on second-hand insights, filtered through the misperceptions of pollsters and politicos in far-off Washington, D.C. They had no option but to rely on polling data, which a more robust ground operation would have exposed as inaccurate: Nothing better gauges voter sentiment than meeting voters in person. And so they had to connect with voters through the largely impersonal means of TV ads, email blitzes and massive spends on social media.
Again, based on our experience working with congressional campaigns, meeting a congressional candidate on-screen just doesn’t work—and it especially doesn’t work for candidates of color, who are seen as “the Black candidate” or “the Hispanic candidate” or “that Asian candidate” when they’re seen on TV, but simply become “the candidate” when encountered in person. Lack of direct contact is what made it possible to apply the label of “radical leftist” to Midwesterner Lauren Underwood, who grew up in her almost 90 percent white district, shares the health, economic and safety concerns of her neighbors, but was depicted this year in TV attack ads that darkened her skin, made a caricature of her features and tied her to lawless “riots.” It’s also why Gina Ortiz Jones, despite her military service and long-time home base in south Texas, could be portrayed as a carpetbagger for owning a (rented-out) condo in Washington, D.C., and be painted as all but irredeemably “other” by attack ads that focused on her life with a female partner.