Melissa Romano Zoom

Melissa Romano, a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been using Zoom to campaign since March.

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Melissa Romano’s ideas for the future were filled with unknowns in mid-March. She didn’t know how the coronavirus would affect her campaign. She wasn’t sure if she could hold fundraisers. As she considered the lack of in-person gatherings, she tried figuring out how to interact with people.

On March 9, Romano became the first candidate running for a Montana state government position to purchase a Zoom subscription, according to campaign finance data. The cost began at $14.99, increased to $15.55 in May and she’s paid it each of the past seven months.

“Just because we’re physically distanced doesn’t mean we can’t have social connection,” Romano said.

Romano, a Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction, is among 11 candidates in Montana who have paid for Zoom subscriptions to receive better access to the video conferencing platform. Those 11 have combined to pay Zoom $1,014.65 with campaign money. While not all that much, the costs reflect how this year’s campaign cycle, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, differs from years past.

“Before COVID, when candidates were able to travel around the state and meet people in their community, that social connection really happened authentically,” Romano said. “Now it does still happen, but we as candidates have to be much more aware and very deliberate in keeping that social connection.”

Romano said she used Zoom prior to March and was familiar with paid versions from her work as a teacher. She’s hosted campaign events that have lasted longer than 40 minutes, which would have been the maximum time allowed with a free version.

Romano has totaled $107.73 on Zoom. Whitney Williams, a governor candidate who lost to Mike Cooney in the Democratic primary, spent $178.70 from March until May. Cooney and attorney general candidate Raph Graybill have purchased and re-upped their Zoom subscriptions only in the past two months as the election nears.

Montana’s congressional candidates haven’t spent on Zoom, according to the Federal Election Commission, but they have had virtual events. Democratic candidate Kathleen Williams has been producing weekly Facebook Live videos, called “Wednesdays with Williams.”

Other federal campaigns have dished out thousands of dollars to Zoom, though. On July 30, the Democratic National Committee paid $95,453 to Zoom for “audio/visual equipment.” Every other payment to Zoom has been less than $6,500. There have been nearly 2,000 payments to the company.

Republican state Legislature candidates Julie Dooling in House District 70 and Llew Jones in HD 18 each paid Zoom once when they spent $149.90 and $104.93, respectively, in late March and early April. They’re the only two Republicans in Montana who have paid for Zoom, which also offers year-long subscriptions.

Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University, said he wasn’t surprised by that considering how Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have handled their presidential campaigns. Vice President Mike Pence held a Sept. 14 rally in Belgrade with around 700 attendees.

“Biden’s campaign has been more careful about gatherings,” Ridout said. “Trump’s campaign, as we saw with the indoor rally in Tulsa, is more willing to do some of those campaign activities. Maybe that partisan difference is reflected more down ballot, perhaps.”

Four years ago, Romano ran for the same position and lost to Elsie Arntzen, who she’s facing again.

Romano believes now, with virtual meetings, she can be in touch with more people. She could have an event with people in Great Falls, for example, and then another with people in Miles City all in the same evening.

“In 2016, criss-crossing the state was something that I really enjoyed, but it was very taxing,” Romano said. “There is sort of an ease of being able to hop on virtually.”

The downsides exist, too. Virtual events likely won’t bring out the same level of excitement as big rallies or in-person meetings, Ridout said. But they offer a way for candidates to be more efficient so they may stick around after the pandemic.

In the past couple decades, digital advertising and digital campaigning has increased more and more each year.

“Maybe this campaign is speeding up that natural transition we’ve been making toward campaigning in a digital environment,” Ridout said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

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