By Shannon Sigafoos

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in Sept.; the issue went to press Nov.

It’s difficult to think of a time in modern U.S. history when the country has been so unsettled in the months leading up to a presidential election.

A deadly pandemic, an economic recession, and a national uprising against systemic racism, have led to a campaign cycle of uncertainty and tension for incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Unable to make a concerted, in-person outreach to every constituent, both parties were forced to take much of their communication online—altering political campaigns in a way that may continue beyond this election cycle. There also has been an unprecedented push for mail-in balloting, with the likelihood that accurate results may take days or weeks to tally. We asked Andrew Clarke, assistant professor of government and law, to weigh in on how the significant events of 2020 changed the organization of political campaigns, accuracy of polling, and how “Election Day” may last well beyond November 3.

“Get out the vote” efforts have always been about in-person contact. How did campaigns adjust broadly in the wake of the pandemic?

Clarke: We know from extensive research that canvassing is the most reliable method of turning out the vote. Campaign volunteers spend a lot of time knocking on doors and talking to their neighbors in an attempt to make sure sympathetic voters cast their ballots. We’ve seen dozens of experiments run to isolate the effect of canvassing efforts, and on average, campaigns can get an additional vote per 16 people contacted. That’s a great return on your investment, and this core tactic—the centerpiece of most modern campaigns—has largely been taken off the table. So, campaigns have had to emphasize other outreach efforts, such as phone and text banking, that we’ve thought of as a sort of runner-up approach to mobilization in the past.

Have there been any altered campaign strategies that have worked? 

Clarke: Campaigns have been able to quickly find some silver linings. For example, they haven’t been able to do many in-person fundraiser events, but candidates pretty quickly discovered that Zoom and other video chat platforms allow candidates to run very inexpensive events with some famous politicians that would otherwise not have attended.

Campaigns had to remake the political playbook in the middle of a big campaign season, and this is something political scientists will study for quite some time.

So, we’ve seen a lot of virtual fundraising that probably would not have been as appealing in more normal circumstances. I’ve also heard, anecdotally, that some campaigns saw unprecedented contact rates with phone banking last spring. People stuck at home seemed to be more willing to answer a campaign call, and well-organized campaigns were able to capitalize on some of that. Campaigns had to remake the political playbook in the middle of a big campaign season, and this is something political scientists will study for quite some time.

There’s solid data out there that fundraising has been at an all-time high at certain points in this election cycle.

Clarke: I think the smarter campaigns did something that was both decent and kind of crafty. Instead of immediately asking for money, they reached out to their donor base and just checked in on them. They used their common sense to see how key supporters were doing—especially if they’re alone or isolated. Checking in on your community is a neighborly thing to do, of course, but it also speaks to the relational nature of politics. Strengthening bonds in your political network can pay dividends in the long run.

After what happened with the 2016 election, how much attention should we have paid to the polls throughout this 2020 election cycle?

Clarke: Election forecasting is always an uncertain business, and as a political scientist, this isn’t actually central to the kind of research that I typically do. That said, professional pollsters certainly took the
lessons of 2016 seriously. People are paying close attention to the quality of state-specific polls, the ways in which surveys weight or account for underrepresented groups in a sample, and so on. I think journalists also had to take a hard look at the way they communicated uncertainty in their interpretation of these forecasting models. It’s hard to tease out the nuance of some of these statistical methods in a way that still conveys the key messages or insights and doesn’t put people to sleep, but misinterpreting models can lead to pretty big consequences.

The events of 2020 have compounded the uncertainty inherent in forecasting. Most of the big forecasting models aggregate a cleaned-up version of high-quality polls and incorporate a set of inputs we often call ‘the fundamentals.’ So, the predictions you’ll see tend to consider the health of the economy, prior vote history, and other indicators that have correlated with key electoral behavior. It’s not clear how some of these fundamentals play out in the modern context. How do we incorporate concerns about a family member’s vulnerability to a deadly pandemic? How should we weigh the challenges voters are facing finding work or juggling child care and work? How do natural disasters and the displacement of key voting blocs factor in? The scope of these events can play havoc with forecasting efforts. So polls can be reliable, but we should keep uncertainty front-and-center as we consider any predictions.

Should we be at all worried about election fraud?

Clarke: I think we should take both electoral fraud and individual incidents of voter fraud seriously. It’s not good for American democracy. No civic-minded person would prefer a fraudulent electoral process. That said, some of the concerns here have probably been exaggerated. We do know voter fraud has happened, but when we have seen this sort of thing prosecuted in the past, it tends to be on a very small scale and/or at a very local level. While fraud should always be taken seriously, we generally don’t see cases of massive electoral fraud in the United States.

Now, mail ballots may make it more likely we see fraud attempts. Perhaps more importantly, there is a worry that ballots will be cast but not counted even without any foul play. States have suddenly expanded vote-by-mail options on a massive scale in response to the pandemic, and so we are going to see more ballots that will not be counted because a voter forgot a signature or did something else wrong in their first attempt to vote through the mail. In a close election, this is understandably going to raise eyebrows—even if there is a perfectly legitimate reason for rejected ballots.

There has been so much focus around mail-in balloting and the postal service. Do you believe that there will be a delay between Election Day and when a winner is actually declared?

Clarke: I do. We’re expected to see unprecedented numbers of votes cast by mail, and I think we’re probably in for record-breaking turnout. Something that a lot of folks are worried about is really just perceptions of election results to come. I don’t know when we’re going to know, definitively, who in the presidential race is going to have secured a majority of electoral votes. Of course, it’s easy to see a preliminary outcome and then a reversal of that outcome and think that this is something kind of suspicious. I worry a lot about the perception of fairness if we see an extended delay, and I am deeply concerned by serious allegations of fraud that might unnecessarily undermine our democracy.

In my classes, we also look at related questions like, ‘Does vote-by-mail actually increase turnout?’ or ‘Does it favor one party?’ These are really refreshing conversations, because people can analyze high-quality data in an academic space where ideological passions can cool, and we can evaluate the merits of the studies in more neutral terms. Still, all studies are time-bound to some extent, and how this all plays out in the real world remains a big question.

 Andrew Clarke is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Clarke received his undergraduate degree in political science at Bucknell University and a doctorate in government at University of Virginia. His research area of expertise includes American political institutions with a more specific focus on legislative party factions.