Campaigns & Elections

The end of the Zoom campaign?

New York City mayoral candidates are trying to ramp up their in-person events with voters.

Mayoral candidates on zoom

Mayoral candidates on zoom Jeff Coltin

When the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club held the inaugural Zoom forum for mayoral candidates in October, some 1,400 viewers turned in to watch as candidates outlined their visions for governing New York City and saying whether they had smoked marijuana. But nearly six months later, many Democratic mayoral candidates have participated in more than 50 Zoom forums. And as the attendance at many of these forums has waned, so has candidates’ interest in attending them, a sign that the era of the Zoom campaign could be near the end.

“We were the first and everyone wanted to see how they were coming out of the box,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, of the group’s initial forum. “Afterwards, everybody did their forums and it was important to their audience and all that, but by now, everybody knows the candidates, everybody’s been invited to 2,000 forums and if you do another forum, nobody’s going to come – except – maybe your membership.”

Last week, Dianne Morales announced that she would no longer participate in online forums after having attended more than 50 Zoom forums. She said that “the race will not be won on Zoom.” Morales said she would shift to meeting face-to-face with voters while making exceptions for forums and debates that “prioritize large, diverse audiences” held on television or radio.

Since her announcement, many of the Democrats running for mayor told City & State they too would step away from back-to-back Zoom forums – which became their primary way of connecting with voters and members of political and civic groups during lockdown – to start meeting with voters on the streets.

Though Ray McGuire has forums scheduled through the month of April, his spokesperson Lupe Todd-Medina told City & State that the campaign would start reviewing forums “on a case-by-case basis,” and maintain a plan for attending virtual and in-person events. “Ultimately, we have to ensure that Ray is talking to New Yorkers by various means with an emphasis on retail politicking,” Todd-Medina said.

Shaun Donovan will limit his Zoom forum attendance as he starts transitioning to more in-person events, his campaign said. “These Zoom forums have been helpful as New Yorkers have navigated this pandemic, but the truth of the matter is not all voters have the same time and access to be able to tune into five different virtual forums every day,” Donovan’s spokesperson Jeremy Edwards, told City & State in an email. “As such, Shaun will be hitting the streets more often in order to safely connect with voters where they are, which will also include attending a limited number of Zoom forums in the future when and if it makes sense.”

Maya Wiley’s campaign told City & State that she has significantly reduced her online forum attendance and also plans to focus on in-person campaigning. Scott Stringer will continue participating in online forums “as his schedule allows,” his spokesperson Tyone Stevens told City & State, but he also said Stringer is focusing on in-person campaigning.

Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams appear to have no gripes about attending Zoom forums. Adams plans to continue attending them as well as in-person events, while Garcia’s campaign spokesperson Lindsey Green said the former sanitation commissioner considers online forums “an important piece of outreach for the campaign alongside in-person campaigning.”

It is unclear whether Andrew Yang will continue attending Zoom forums. His campaign did not return City & State’s request for comment about his plans. Though Yang, possibly because of his front-runner status, has gotten flack for keeping a less robust forum schedule than many of his opponents.

“There were forums on Super Bowl Sunday, there were days when there were three forums in a row,” said John DeSio, a political observer and frequent critic of Zoom forums, who applauded the candidates’ shift to in-person campaigning. “I’m in this business and it’s incumbent on me to stay on top of these things and even I can’t invest the amount of time it takes to be watching all these forums. I can't imagine how an average voter could ever take this time.”

But as candidates begin ramping up their in-person campaigning, some think it may be shortsighted to write off Zoom forums because they could risk alienating viewers from overlooked parts of the city. Take Staten Island, where leading candidates spent two hours talking about local issues, including the borough’s limited public transportation options and how they would address the issue of Staten Island being the only borough in New York City without a public hospital. That’s an issue that the forum’s moderator, College of Staten Island political science professor Richard Flanagan, said is a topic the community wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity to ask outside of an online forum.

Flanagan worried that moving from online forums will mean moving in the direction of negative campaigning. “It’s a huge city and they’re getting online with small groups of New Yorkers and so it’s a little bit like a New England township meeting,” Flanagan said. “I understand though that it can be exhausting on them and it drains their tank, and I understand Morales’ decision for sure too. Soon the faucet’s going to open up on the other side of it, which is just negative campaign ads pretty soon. That’s the next wave and then people will (say), ‘Oh, this stinks too.’”

In recent weeks, candidates have started to focus their attacks on Yang. Adams accused Yang of never holding a job and a Wiley aide called Yang “a mini-Trump who thinks our city is a fun play thing in between podcasts.”

But realistically, longtime Democratic political consultant Neal Kwatra doesn’t think we will be seeing the end of Zoom forums just yet. There are at least four online forums on the books just this week. An online town hall with several mayoral candidates and members of the United Federation of Teachers on Wednesday, followed by a forum hosted by The Nation. And on Thursday, there’s a Warby Parker and Tech:NYC mayoral forumfollowed by an online town hall on supportive housing. “I don’t think people are going to completely abrogate these Zoom forums 100%, but I think they’re going to play a smaller and smaller role as in-person campaigning, and frankly, more voter contact and paid media starts being deployed,” Kwatra said.