Biden's once maligned digital operation raises big money by embodying candidate
Posted September 21, 2020 5:59 p.m. EDT
CNN — When Rob Flaherty began describing Joe Biden's digital strategy as a "battle for the soul of the Internet" earlier this year, the Democratic primary had barely ended, the former vice president's campaign was alarmingly low on money and President Donald Trump's digital-centric campaign looked like a juggernaut.
The upbeat phrase was quickly panned as a pollyannish view of the Internet.
But six months later -- after Biden raised $205 million online alone in August, just $5 million less than the Trump campaign's entire monthly haul -- Biden's digital director and the rest of the campaign's digital team feel a dash of vindication.
"There was a game plan from the beginning that we've been executing on," Flaherty said. "So, it made it easier to sort of tune all that stuff out."
That sense was heightened on Sunday when each campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission, revealing Biden had $466 million in the bank, $141 million ahead of Trump's $325 million in the bank. It's a quick turn of fortune for Biden, who entered the general election in a formidable financial deficit to Trump and Republicans.
Biden's digital strategy, once seen as a weakness, has become one of the most notable growth areas of the campaign, one that has come about at a critical time as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has pushed most Democratic campaigning online. With the help of millions of dollars in initial investment and a key partnership, Biden's campaign has centered their strategy on the traits that make Biden a unique political figure -- empathy, calm and compassion -- and actively tried to stay away from matching Trump's online fire with more fire.
It was a unique bet: While outrage and anger do well on the Internet, as evidenced by both much of what Trump puts online and the way that many on the left respond to the President, the Biden campaign was staking its digital campaign on the idea that calming content would do just as well in a time of chaos.
For now, less than two months out from what many Democrats believe is the most consequential election of recent memory, the Biden team believes that risk has paid off.
"There is something about the vice president being a compassionate leader that really does resonate with people in a way that would not be intuitive, since many believe the internet to be a right-wing meme hell hole," Flaherty said. "We are just playing a different game."
The mantra of Biden's digital effort has been to showcase the former vice president for who he is.
Biden does not live stream his daily life, nor does he respond to voters directly on Twitter. And, most notably, rarely does the Biden team fire back at Trump with a caustic bard or mocking one-liner. Instead, Biden's digital content walks the line between taking Trump seriously -- and calling him out -- with attempting to focus on traits that have defined Biden's decades-long political career.
Some of the Democratic nominee's most popular content has both used Trump's own words against him and highlighted Biden's interests. On Saturday, Biden's digital team took a video of Trump saying, "You'll never see me again" if he loses to Biden and simply added Biden saying, "I'm Joe Biden and I approve this message." The video has more than 15.5 million views on Twitter, with millions more on Facebook and Instagram. Other popular content includes Biden talking about his love of cars, the former vice president simply putting on a mask or a conversation he had with a nurse at the outset of the coronavirus crisis.
"The way we raise money online reflects how the vice president raises money, which is by showing gratitude, bringing people in, making them feel like they're a part of something," said Flaherty. "Making people feel connected and part of the campaign, it makes them want to give more money."
Caitlin Mitchell, Biden's senior adviser for digital, colorfully described the goal as building enough atmosphere online that people want to stay at "the party."
"First, you want to bring folks in the door, but once they get there, to the party, if you will, what kind of party it is and how it makes people feels is the difference," said Mitchell. "You can have a giant party, but if it is no fun, and there is no music and there is no booze, people are going to leave. And so, we put a lot of effort into that stewardship. ... We think that all of that relationship-building makes a huge difference. That's the driver of our grassroots fundraising success."
The strategy also helps Biden avoid two areas that worry digital strategists: Ones where he comes across as inauthentic and those where he is drawn into the often unseemly arenas where Trump chooses to fight the election.
"People always want to do a new, buzzy viral thing," said Cassie Doyle, a digital strategist at Rising Tide Interactive. "But at the end of the day, digital works best when you use it to complement a candidate's strengths, not make it into something they are not."
It's a fact that Biden's team is well aware of, and something that Jen O'Malley Dillon and others find themselves reminding people of with regularity.
"I think one of the things that always happens people say: 'Oh, well, Trump's doing that, you need to just go do that more of that.' Or, this is how it works and the Internet this terrible place and fear wins," the campaign manager said. "We just said no, we're not going to do that because that is not who Joe Biden is."
Sizable initial investments
The former vice president ran a markedly old-school primary campaign, putting far less emphasis on digital than most Democratic operatives looking on from outside the campaign would have liked. The clearest sign of that was in the sheer number of digital operatives on staff: When Biden effectively locked up the Democratic primary in March, the campaign had 19 people working on their digital campaign, a number significantly smaller than what would eventually be needed.
David Axelrod was one of those critics. The former top Obama adviser used a New York Times opinion piece in May to urge the Biden campaign to beef up its digital operation because "online speeches from his basement won't cut it," referring to the campaign's tactics in the days and weeks after the coronavirus pandemic effectively shuttered the campaign trail.
The concern from Axelrod and others led to considerable handwringing inside Democratic politics, though, with outside operatives openly questioning why the digital staff was only two dozen people, a notably small number for a campaign that was about to be fought primarily on digital platforms. The concerns also led some to push the campaign to hire outside digital firms like Hawkfish, the Michael Bloomberg-funded digital firm.
The campaign now employs over 200 people on digital communications, fundraising and organizing. Flaherty and other top Biden aides largely dismissed the earlier criticism, believing that the plan they had would eventually succeed, even if it took a few months.
The first boost to Biden's digital strategy came in late March, when the campaign -- then led by new campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon -- invested millions in acquiring emails and phone numbers for millions of people that the campaign hoped they could turn into donors, volunteers and supporters. That investment, which would go on to become a tens-of-millions-of-dollars commitment by the campaign, came at a time when the campaign was cash strapped, signaling how seriously Dillon and others took digital, even if their candidate was not a digital-first politician.
"At that point, all big financial allocations were pretty big decisions and it was honestly hedging on bets down the line," O'Malley Dillon told CNN. "It was because we believed in this, it was because we saw it was going to be critical to be competitive in the general, but it meant we were doing this instead of other things at that time, for sure."
Flaherty described the initial money spent on acquisition as a "a good example of the campaign taking risks on digital" because there was no guarantee it would lead to millions in donations and came at a time when the campaign was cash strapped. But, Flaherty added, that initial acquisition was "the engine of the whole" digital operation because it allowed them to begin raising the money needed to fund a national campaign.
Axelrod now lauds the Biden digital operation, saying the massive August fundraising "clearly reflects a consolidation behind him among Democrats," but is also a sign of "huge improvement over the primary when they lagged many of the other major campaigns in online donations."
"So yes," he said, "I think they have upped their game."
Joining of Democratic fundraising efforts
Then came help from the Democratic National Committee, which effectively merged its online fundraising apparatus with the Biden campaign in an effort to boost both.
The Biden campaign tapped Clarke Humphrey, who had previously worked at the Democratic committee, to be its deputy digital director for grassroots fundraising in May, with the express goal of her integrating the Biden and DNC teams.
That move was emphasized by the campaign bring in Mitchell, who had previously worked as chief mobilization officer at the DNC and held a similar role for Sen. Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign.
"We made a decision early on that our best bet was to not look at the DNC as a vessel that we could work through, but to look at them as a partner and that by doing that," said Dillon, "we actually were able to put both of our lists to use."
But even with these partnerships and investment, what has set the Biden campaign apart from past Democratic efforts, said Teddy Goff, the digital director for Barack Obama's reelection campaign and the top digital strategist on Hillary Clinton's 2016 bid, was their ability to fully embrace who Biden is and translate it online.
"They are doing a better job than any campaign I have seen of fully inhabiting the character of their candidate," Goff said, "and having that character shape the campaign as a whole."