Q&A: Coronavirus campaigning: CMU’s Anthony Feig explains his strategies and what he learned


Faculty member Anthony Feig explains his "Coffee with the Candidate" initiative over Zoom on Aug. 25.

Charismatic in both geography classes and on the podium, faculty member Anthony Feig brought his skills to his first foray into politics.

The faculty member ran in the Democratic primary for Michigan’s 4th district over the summer up against Jerry Hilliard. Feig's platform focused on issues such as affordable healthcare and higher teacher wages, according to his website. Civil rights were also a concern, citing the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

On August 4, he lost to Hilliard. He is currently not looking to run for a seat somewhere else for a while, if at all, Feig said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique hurdle to deal with this year. Candidates from all over are having to adapt, and Feig is no exception. Through a blend of online meetings and get-togethers, he was able to keep connected to would-be constituents.

Over Zoom between classes, Feig sat down with Central Michigan Life to discuss the events of the past year and its impact on his campaign.

CM Life: What drove you to begin running in the first place?

There were several things and issues that I thought needed to be addressed by the government. I was just sort of generally unhappy with how things were. My sons, who are high school-aged, said, “Well Dad, what are you going to do? Time to stop complaining about it and take some actions.” I thought, “Okay, what can I do to be an agent of change?”

How was it like running a campaign during the pandemic?

Quite honestly it was exciting, adventurous, and a lot of fun. We got to contact a lot of people and engage in digital outreach which we pivoted to right away. It was really interesting and fascinating. There were some drawbacks, of course, but it was a great experience.

What were some of those drawbacks?

It made it hard to knock on doors. When you show up at people’s doors, that’s the most effective way of engaging voters. We couldn’t do that and that was a big deal. 

Appearing in public less was also a bit of a problem. It was harder to see two candidates side-by-side when you didn’t have a chance to be in public in a live format. 

How were you able to compensate for the “knocking on door” issue?

Really aggressive and robust voter outreach. We did it through mailers. We had a large group of volunteers handwriting postcards for us. A handwritten postcard in a mailbox is almost as effective as knocking on someone's door and more effective than a telephone call.

Right around mid-March, when we knew (the pandemic) was coming, we pivoted to a digital campaign platform. We made aggressive use of Facebook because so many constituents in this district are connected through Facebook…We ramped up our Twitter presence – which was already fairly robust – we held town halls. I did Facebook Live events. We did virtual fundraising house parties.

What was the greatest fear when your campaign went online?

The first two or three months of our campaign was reconnaissance. My campaign manager and I drove everywhere. We went through small, tiny little towns, we went to the larger cities…We did everything to get a feel of the place. And you can do that driving part, but you can’t interact with people randomly and up-close like you did. So everybody’s anxiety was the same – how do we do this?

The big one was: what’s going to happen to the people? Because here’s this disease and it’s a killer. So many of the people who live in mid-Michigan are vulnerable populations. Me, as a future elective representative, was thinking: “Okay, what’s going to happen to these folks? How are we going to keep up with what people need?”

What do you think was the greatest success about going online?

We did weekly events called “Coffee with the Candidate” where we would have a (virtual) meeting that we would (be held) every Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Anybody interested could join. We would have conversations, (it) was sometimes free-flowing, but sometimes we had an issue or a question we wanted to pose to people.

This congressional district is 15 counties – it’s 9,000 square miles. People didn’t mix before. They didn’t know each other. Through the coffee events every week, we built a community of people all over the place who are now friends...(and) cultivated relationships that they otherwise never would have done. And that was our biggest online success.

Do you think the experience of engaging online would be a good additive to other campaigns?

Absolutely. Even after a vaccine, even after the curve is sloped down, this is going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. It is really important for people to be able to engage with people digitally. Every candidate out there is excited to get back out there and knock doors. This kind of thing is part of the future, and it’s a powerful tool.

After the campaign was over, what was it like coming back to campus and teaching again?

One thing I really learned from virtual campaigning was camera presence. I slid very easily into a mode where I needed to keep people engaged through this camera and through this microphone. It’s not easy to do. The nice thing about the virtual campaign is that people are tuning in because they want to listen to you and pick it apart.

One of the things I had to keep in mind was learning the new software... Engaging students is something I see as a fun opportunity through the camera and online. 

How would you tell students to get involved in politics?

Register to vote. My goodness, that’s the big one. That’s the same advice no matter where you are in the political spectrum. 

Make an appointment to vote, turn to your phone and make a calendar event. Then set an alarm for when you’re going to request your absentee ballot, when you’re going to fill it out (and) when you’re going to walk it over to the city clerk’s office.

There are so many resources to help you figure out what’s on the ballot. Sample ballots are on (michigan.gov). Depending on where you live, you can find out what’s on there. There are so many kinds of organizations out there who give you candidate information and inspect the candidate’s social media (to) see what they’re saying.