Campaigning during pandemic means fewer rallies, absence of presidential candidates

Posted July 20, 2020 6:10 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina's gubernatorial race is supposed to be one of the top contests in the country this fall, but it's barely even started – at least in public – because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Big campaign rallies are a traditional part of the process, according to Meredith College political science professor David McLennan. They energize supporters and help bring in donations, but right now, they’re a risky proposition.

"I think it’s a real dilemma for a campaign," McLennan said. "Do you want to promote social distancing and the use of masks, which doesn’t create a good visual for a campaign event? Or do you want to be hypocritical and violate the executive orders?"

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has mandated that people cover their faces in public when in close quarters, and he also has put limits on the size of gatherings – 10 people indoors and 25 people outside.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging some of Cooper's executive orders in court, has held a few in-person events. At one in Statesville last week, he was photographed speaking to a large group sitting close together without masks.

The photo wouldn’t be out of place in a normal election year, but this isn’t a normal election year, McLennan noted.

"You want your campaign workers, you want your voters to be healthy. You want the candidate, obviously, to remain healthy," he said. "So, for a lot of North Carolinians, they see a picture like that and they go, 'What's going on?' This is very, if not dangerous, it's to some degree hypocritical when the official state message is to wear a mask and yet a group of people are being encouraged not to wear masks."

Forest's campaign didn't respond Monday to a request for comment.

Cooper hasn't held any in-person campaign events since the start of the pandemic. McLennan said he can afford not to because he gets regular statewide exposure during state briefings providing updated information on the response to the pandemic.

Candidates also usually benefit from presidential campaign events, but it’s not clear how many of those will take place this fall, either.

"Will Joe Biden come to the state in any traditional sense and have big rallies which Roy Cooper will attend?" McLennan wonders. "Will the president come and do the similar kinds of things for the Republican side? That’s really an unknown right now."

McLennan says there’s no sign yet that the situation will change before Election Day. But both Cooper and Forest posted healthy fundraising numbers in the second quarter and are spending on campaign ads and grassroots organizing.

"Thanks to the energy of our many grassroots supporters, we raised $5.5 million in the second quarter completely online," Cooper campaign spokeswoman Liz Doherty said. "We've also invested heavily online to communicate and reach every voter."

"The good news is that people are supporting the candidates with their checks, so that's at least a sign that people are paying attention," McLennan said.

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