Although this year’s Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) election period has, in some ways, been as fast paced and intense as ever, there’s no denying that something is missing without that in-person element. The question remains now as to whether, moving forward campaigns will return to their usual antics of annoying students while they meander through campus, or if maybe, after this year, we will see in-person campaigning come to an end once and for all.
From the perspective of accessibility and convenience it is clear a campaign fully online has been a major improvement for both the campaign teams and the students.
“Personally, having now experienced both an in-person campaign and an online campaign I have much preferred the latter”, says Julia Karolina Piaskowy, the campaign manager for Daniel O’Reilly.
“This years elections being held entirely online meant that not only was it was easier to organise everything, but also it was easier to get people involved and ask them to help out on behalf of the candidate, without feeling like we’re taking them away from lectures or free periods when they could be studying or doing work.”
“In ‘normal times’ we’d have candidates and campaign teams chasing students around the Hamilton and the Arts Block trying to talk to people and get them to vote for their own candidate, which I was never a fan of.
“It required the students on your team to take time out of their day at a time close to reading week when the majority of us had major deadlines looming over us”, she added. “And trying to corner people in between lectures and during their peaceful breaks always felt invasive to me.”
Personally, having now experienced both an in-person campaign and an online campaign I have much preferred the latter
Aoife Robertson, the campaign manager for the Bev Genockey team, echoes this sentiment, saying: “Previously it was very time consuming to be involved with a campaign and you could spend hours on campus talking to students and convincing them to vote in your favour. Now we can post everything online and reach more people in less time.”
“Scheduling posts in advance means that you could have the majority of the day’s work done by 10 am and the rest of the day can be spent answering students’ questions, preparing for hustings, catching up on college work etc.”
“I also think that campaigning being online has made it more accessible in many ways”, Robertson adds. “We can now reach students who are off campus, students on placement, students who commute and can’t hang around after lectures. Students who may not previously have been able to get involved with the campaign are now offered more opportunities to be a part of the campaign team or to ask questions of the candidates.”
Ruth Brady, campaign manager for Leah Keogh in the presidential race, is somewhat less enthusiastic about this shift to online: “I don’t know if I would call it easier. It’s a completely different beast.”
With the onus placed on social media this year and with the adjustments to campaign rules, Brady explains that it has been tricky managing such a huge online presence while making sure rules are stuck to.
“Just in terms of those regulations, I mean, social media is an absolute beast and controlling campaign errors on people’s social media profiles, controlling what and when it gets out, what is said, where it’s said.”
“Social media definitely has to be a lot more planned, especially because the rules are so much trickier”, Brady adds.
Previously it was very time consuming to be involved with a campaign and you could spend hours on campus talking to students and convincing them to vote in your favour. Now we can post everything online and reach more people in less time
Brady also points out how online campaigning means it’s harder to set off a spark in people for their candidate without that in-person canvassing: “During our virtual campaign, it’s via Zoom and it’s hard to get passion into people… People get passion off of people. If you’re talking to somebody face to face and they’re really selling the story to you, you’re going to be like, ‘yeah, I’m 100 per cent giving you my number one’.”
Rosalynd Southern, an academic who specialises in political communications at the University of Liverpool, would agree with Brady on this point. According to her, for campaigns that go on amid the pandemic, the banning of leafleting and knocking on doors is an obstacle for candidates who wish to appeal to voters at the grassroots level.
“I guess what you’d call electorate penetration in terms of actually being able to communicate with people, leaflets are always the biggest one. So going on some general elections, 90 per cent of people will have had a leaflet from at least one party compared to about five per cent of people who will have seen a tweet.”
While it is certainly fair to say that this shift toward online campaigning has had its draw-backs, TCDSU sabbatical candidates are not the only ones affected by it. The London mayoral campaigns are underway, and with significant restrictions still in place, candidates face predicaments similar to those running in the TCDSU race, though on a much larger scale.
Chris Annous, a staffer on Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt’s campaign team for Mayor of London, spoke to The University Times about the effects coronavirus restrictions have had on them: “Yeah it’s tremendously changed because for the Liberal Democrats, we’ve never really had the money or the media coverage of the big two parties, because we’ve always relied on our activists to get our message out, door by door, volunteer to vote individually.”
“But obviously, we’ve not gotten to do that properly for any real amount. Maybe there would have been a month where we could knock on doors over the last year or so. But we’ve never really been able to get the operation going.”
With traditional methods of reaching out to voters at the grass-root level now gone, Annous says that his campaign has had to adapt to more unique virtual strategies.
With handing out leaflets banned, Annous says that they’ve had to really take advantage of online adverts and social platforms. Being innovative is key to maintaining momentum.
So going on some general elections, 90 per cent of people will have had a leaflet from at least one party compared to about five per cent of people who will have seen a tweet
“We’ve been using online ads and we’ve been really working on a social platform. So we’ve had Louisa doing Instagram lives, Facebook Lives with different people.”
In one of those live streams Porritt was joined by Jackie Weaver, the clerk for the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, who ascended into internet fame after going viral for creating havoc at a Zoom meeting of Handforth parish council last December.
Indeed, Annous holds that exploring the less formal social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok are a great way for candidates to stand out and reveal a more human side to them.
With Mayoral races, in particular, Annous emphasises how important it is to get across a candidate’s personality: “We usually do a live stream per week with either some form of celebrity or some prominent campaigner. And those are really informal. So sort of like it’s not Luisa, the politician. It’s Luisa the person.”
“She will also post about what’s going on in her life and whatnot, which I think people do really like because people want to get to know people.”
Annous adds that bringing to light a more relatable personality will stand to Porritt in the London mayor race against the incumbent Sadiq Khan.
“I think it’s nice to get an alternative person who you can feel is a genuine, real person that you can support which I think people increasingly like. And also with the pandemic, we’ve got so much on policy debates, and there’s so many things to talk about. So just coming in with more informal conversation with the person. And by interacting with them online. I think it’s enjoyable and engaging for our members and supporters.”
We usually do a live stream per week with either some form of celebrity or some prominent campaigner. And those are really informal. So sort of like it’s not Luisa, the politician. It’s Luisa the person
While campaigns have certainly proved capable of adapting to the online sphere throughout this pandemic, and have taken advantage of social media platforms to highlight the human side of a politician, the question remains as to whether it can be a replacement for on-the-ground canvassing.
For Southern, in-person campaigning is here to stay, explaining how it’s still the best way of increasing engagement.
“I do think there’s no substitute really for knocking on doors, talking to people face to face, getting these leaflets through the doors really. We know that turnout is increased by people going out and just reminding people of the election.”
Correction: 16:55, March 11th
An earlier version of this article misspelled Julia Karolina Piaskowy’s name as Julia Karolina Pias.