The Manila Times - Campaigning in Covid

19 January 2021

By Ma. Lourdes Tiquia | The Manila Times

THERE were more than 50 elections globally in 2020. Some of the most watched were the Taiwan presidential election, India’s assembly elections, South Korea’s legislative elections, Singapore general elections, Myanmar general elections, New Zealand general election and that of the US. Political technocrats, strategists and campaigners are pouring into the literature and the actual models of campaigning done in these countries, especially those which had to campaign with Covid-19. The campaigns were not face-to-face, and it was not the traditional practice of huge rallies and electrifying crowds. No moving speeches; instead, it was a subdued, personal setting defining engagement. Politics in the attention economy, after all, is about engagement.

Jurisdictions have defined what are permissible and non-permissible activities on the ground, and this is because of the health protocols that need to be strictly followed. Non-permissible are “convening/attending meetings in public places; convening/attending meetings in private residences; door-knocking and meeting the public, attending community events.” Permissible activities are “letterbox drops; handing out leaflets; billboards/posters; social media; newspaper ads and radio and TV.” In the Philippines, we are awaiting what the Comelec will formulate and the policy on hybrid elections; or the same thing hangs with Congress and as usual, political reforms are hard to come by and are often so delayed as to ensure a smooth rollout.

From virtual campaign stops to tele-rallies, it all boils down to data and analytics to put together a general campaign strategy for a national campaign. Building one-on-one relationship becomes a skill a candidate will have to nurture, talking largely to a void, streamed by various platforms. A candidate who does not adhere to health protocols is, overnight, labeled as “dangerous and irresponsible.” In all these virtual events, online security becomes a nightmare because one can just join and start putting scripts on the screen or messing up group chats or locking out other participants.

Registering, identifying and persuading voters and pushing them to go to the polls cannot be done the traditional way. The challenge is to make a candidate’s base real and alive but all online. But campaigns will also have to deal with the changing algorithm of various social media platforms. Campaigns need to be conscious of “rabbit holes” and filter bubbles since misinformation thrives on repetition and familiarity. All campaigns will have to start early and the usual excuse that candidates move only in October 2021 once they become official candidates will have a hard time reaching out to voters. Engagement is built over time and not overnight, and the more candidates understand this, the better for all.

Radio will regain its traction because a candidate can do radio patches and control the crisscross of airwaves without being in the area, unlike TV. And without a media organization, which used to lord placements made in Manila, campaigns will have to deal with cable TV to get their messages into households.

One strategy that a national candidate will have to do is to link his/her database with the ground without moving on the ground but all disaggregate movement online. Political campaigners and/or workers will now have to relearn online skills. There will be no need for advance teams, sortie masters and political officers if they cannot adapt and innovate. And in their place, production teams, graphic artists and data analysts are needed, and communication as well as over-the-top media services become crucial. Imagine if the vaccines will have a delayed rollout.

Based on the May 2019 elections, Luzon has more registered voters with 27.5 million (45 percent), Visayas has 12.8 million (21 percent) and Mindanao has 14.4M (23 percent). The National Capital Region (NCR) has 7 million voters or 11 percent. So, Luzon with NCR represents 56 percent of the total registered voters. There are more women voters at 51 percent than male voters at 49 percent or a 6 percent gap unlike before when there was parity. In terms of age, there are 33 percent youth voters (20.4 million), 52.2 percent from the age bracket 31-59 years old (32.2 million) and around 14 percent are senior citizens (9.1 million).

The top five vote rich regions are Region 4-A, NCR, Region 3, Region 7 and Region 6. The top five vote-rich povinces are Cebu, Cavite, Pangasinan, Laguna and Negros Occidental. The top five vote-rich cities are Quezon City, City of Manila, Davao City, Caloocan City and Cebu City. These vote-rich areas show the influence of Luzon.

In the online and digital campaigns module of Pahayag-SONA, the following were established during the lockdown: a) Facebook (52.6 percent) and YouTube (50.9 percent) are the online platforms most frequently used among the survey population with roughly half of respondents using them since the start of the lockdown while Instagram (14.9 percent) and Twitter (12.5 percent) were far behind in third and fourth place; b) 36.9 percent use Facebook for more than five hours; c) Facebook Messenger registered virtually universal usage among respondents at 97.7 percent; d) More than half of respondents (56.2 percent ) chose Facebook Messenger as their preferred video conferencing service; e) Netflix is the most popular streaming service among respondents at 65 percent, among others.

So, apart from campaigning, there are logistical, constitutional and political complexities of pandemic voting, and as Covid tested our belief systems, the ecosystems of public and private organizations, the same is also happening in politics. Who holds the bully pulpit enhances rhetoric and has a stage to launch a campaign. Who controls the levers of power in a pandemic controls much, much more. In a terrain of imponderables, control defines the outcomes.

If the vaccines roll out as planned, the economy will define 2022. If vaccines are delayed and go beyond the third quarter, it becomes the defining moment of 2022.

And as has been stated, “when the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer.” Doing so fails the coronavirus leadership test of controlling the crisis. “Passing that test requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest and iterative fashion, recognizing that mistakes are inevitable and correcting course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.”