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Campaigning in the era of COVID-19: Why the rest of the country should be watching New Brunswick

Photo credit: Election New Brunswick

Photo credit: Election New Brunswick

Last week, New Brunswick became the first province in Canada to go into an election campaign since the emergence of COVID-19. And with minority governments sprinkled across the country and at the federal level, it’s not likely to be the last.

The lifeblood of any political campaign is human contact. Leaders host political rallies, unveil platforms, and deliver speeches to packed houses, while voters meet and speak directly to candidates.

The risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic mean New Brunswick has to adjust its traditional approach to elections—an effort that means the province will be in a position to teach the rest of the country how to run a campaign by screen and keyboard. There will be no hands shaken or babies kissed. Instead, candidates will have to be creative and innovative as they seek to connect with voters.

Here are the trends we’re expecting to see in this—and in future—Canadian campaigns:

Candidates with established profile

With fewer opportunities to introduce new candidates, parties are opting for those with name recognition and established followings. We’ll see more private sector, union, association and non-profit leaders and influencers. It’s not as steep a hill to climb. For this reason, incumbents may have a considerable advantage.

Messaging is king

In a keyboard campaign like this one, the message is more important than it has been in the past. It’s got to be concise, compelling and resonate with target audiences. It must cut through the static of social media. Ideally, it’s shareable. And, as always, it must be authentic.

Strong social media games

Social media allows candidates and parties to bypass the filter of traditional media and talk directly to voters. This time around, it’s more than likely to stand in for more traditional platforms like podiums or doorsteps.

Candidates need to understand the norms and expectations of each channel and conduct themselves accordingly. Unfortunately, they’ll also need to learn how to acknowledge and respond gracefully to trolls and other haters.

Some folks know the lingo and can deliver a great clapback that is shared and generates positive attention—even admiration. Others seem out of their depths, with argumentative and thin-skinned posts or responses. In those cases, we can expect traditional media coverage of issues and confrontational exchanges previously relegated to social media—as well as some expression of today’s cancel culture.

An expedited path to online voting

New Brunswick’s legislation doesn’t currently allow for online voting and there have been questions about what levers could be pulled in the event of an outbreak. Even if the province manages to get to voting day without incident, we can expect some level of electoral reform to come as a result of the experiment—in New Brunswick and in other jurisdictions across the country. Although allowing voters the ability to participate online has long been discussed, this may just be the necessary tipping point for change.

Although the campaign and lead-up to a province-wide vote may look and feel different in New Brunswick, the democratic process will be preserved, no less vibrant and possibly even enhanced for the next time we find ourselves in an election.

New Brunswick can lead the country in demonstrating that a safe, responsible and engaging campaign is possible while heeding public health advice. Other jurisdictions may want to take note.