Pandemic changes vibe for voters in Delaware

DOVER — Politics, during this age of pandemic and polarization, have been very different from what we have come to expect in this state.
It seems strange that Delawareans have had so little public contact with the candidates this year.
Consider, for example, how many politicians you may have encountered at the Apple Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville if it had not been canceled.
Or just how many balloons and buttons you would have collected at the Delaware State Fair if it had not been reined in.
“Delawareans have come to expect that they’re going to be able to encounter the candidates personally,” said Ralph Begleiter, the founding director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.
Mr. Begleiter said the pandemic has put a “huge dent” in traditional campaigning.
“This is not just a Delaware phenomenon; it is a national phenomenon,” said Mr. Begleiter, a retired journalist and professor. “At the national level, it has resulted in an enormously large, almost grotesque, amount of money being spent on advertising because the candidates have not been able to travel.
“And even when they do travel, they have been able to meet relatively small numbers of people at relatively small events.”
So the question is whether this will mean anything Tuesday when voters go to the polls.
“Does it substantively change the way the vote is going to go this year? I tend to doubt that in this particular year,” he said. “My guess is that people in Delaware, like people all across the country, are making their decisions on candidates more on the basis of overarching national issues and political observations about politics in the country than they are about mom-and-pop, smaller issues associated with a particular state.”
Take, for example, the gubernatorial race between incumbent Democratic Gov. John Carney and Republican challenger Julianne Murray. (Candidate survey.)
“It’s about the way he handled the pandemic and not about a myriad of other issues that in another year would have a better chance of breaking above the surface in a voter’s mind,” said Mr. Begleiter. “No. 1, the pandemic itself, is driving people’s voting this year, both in Delaware and nationally.
“And No. 2, the politics of the pandemic is, I would say, probably driving people’s voting both in Delaware and at the national level.”


In recent weeks, our readers likely have noticed the large amount of ink devoted to candidate surveys.
We have practiced this for years here, recognizing that voters should have an opportunity to pore over and ponder the positions of those running for office.
Thinking about what we do and the limited number of public debates this year, it prompted this editor to contact Mr. Begleiter for some additional perspective on what has been available to voters.

In the Delaware Debates, Ralph Begleiter moderated the discussion between gubernatorial candidates John Carney, the Democratic Party’s incumbent, and Julianne Murray, the Republican challenger.

“In Delaware, I lament the fact that we have a limited amount of what I would call mainstream or traditional media,” he said. “These are places where your staff gets to lay things out through the campaign season or during any time of crisis. You get to lay it out. People get the paper. They get to spend the time they want with it, spend as much time as they want with it.”
In mid-October, Mr. Begleiter moderated the Delaware Debates between Gov. John Carney and his challenger, Julianne Murray, and another between U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester and Lee Murphy.
A third planned debate between U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat, and Republican opponent Lauren Witzke was canceled, since Sen. Coons was focused on the Supreme Court justice decision.
The Carney-Murray debate lasted about an hour and covered a range of topics.
“In another kind of political year, when the pandemic was not around, I would have guessed the state (Chancery) Court ruling on property taxes, for example, would have been a big issue, a big talking issue,” said Mr. Begleiter.
In short, the court ruled the state should more regularly reassess properties, something Delaware’s counties have not done in years. It could have an impact on school funding, among other things.
“It’s a sleeper issue,” he said. “That’s going to be huge when that hits. Why aren’t people talking about that? The pandemic has thrown a blanket over everything — the issues, the capability to campaign.”


The property reassessment impact (see answers in screenshots below this column) was one of several questions the candidates were asked to answer during the Delaware Debate. Mr. Begleiter said the candidates did not get a preview of the questions
In past years, the Delaware Debates were held with the candidates on the stage in front of a full auditorium at the University of Delaware.
This year, the candidates were in their homes via videoconference.
There were no “sighs and gasps” from the audience like there had been in previous years.
“You can sense it in an auditorium, but you had none of that feedback on these debates,” he said. “That’s not just for me, the moderator; that was for the candidates, as well. They didn’t have that feedback loop, which they get when they’re sitting on the stage at Mitchell Hall.”
Mr. Begleiter, who reported for CNN for 18 years, said that is another example of how candidates are missing out on the “vibe of the people.”