Democrats Wrote the Playbook on Digital Organizing, So Why Is Trump Dominating?

May 18, 2020by Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Vice President Joe Biden holds a virtual campaign event on March 13, 2020 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Political campaign apps are hardly a new phenomenon, but when President Donald Trump recently unveiled the one for his reelection bid, digital innovators on the left responded with alarm — and exasperation.

A refrain echoed from executive suites in Silicon Valley to the digital campaigning startups in Washington: Why hasn’t Joe Biden built anything this good?

The Trump app hijacks many of the online innovations that progressives have been pioneering since the president took office. It smoothly converts casual users into effective evangelists for the Trump brand, nudging them to draw in their family and social networks, and motivating them with challenges and prizes that make spreading the gospel of Trump as addicting and exhilarating as playing the slots.

Democrats who dismiss the app as just a gathering place for hardcore Trump loyalists are taking a risk. Alongside its relentless right-wing news feeds, cameos from Trump’s inner circle and amplification of conspiracy theories, the app effectively mobilizes and trains people to draw their politically uncommitted friends and neighbors into Trump’s orbit.

“I am not worried about the true believers downloading the app in May,” said Stefan Smith, who was the online engagement director for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. “I’m worried about the people in August who, between now and then, have been seeing post after post after post from their friends who downloaded it. And then they download it.”

Republicans have noticed the Biden disadvantage too. “There are plenty of Democrats who know how to fix this,” said veteran Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson, who recently launched the nonprofit Center for Campaign Innovation. “Biden is now hearing from them on the op-ed page of The New York Times. For whatever reason the Biden campaign is not listening. They have decided to run the campaign like it is the 1970s.”

As Trump’s app started showing up on iPhones a few weeks ago, some Democratic operatives stopped vowing that Biden would close the digital gap with the president and pivoted to downplaying how much it matters.

Yet others have become alarmed by how much the digital gap keeps growing amid the former vice president’s awkward adaptation to virtual campaigning, and his delay in embracing many of the innovative online tools and techniques that enabled Democrats to triumph in the 2018 midterm elections. Biden’s behind-the-curve campaigning nearly doomed his candidacy in the Democrats’ nominating contests earlier this year.

“It is scary to think how all that momentum we built is just dissipating,” said Emily Isaac, national relational organizing director for the Bernie Sanders campaign. “Trump is implementing these tactics, and it is painful to watch. … It feels like a missed opportunity. There is a lot of momentum right now and there is no reason Biden should not have an organizing program that dwarfs Trump’s.”

Isaac said she is confused by how little curiosity the Biden campaign has shown in the online organizing playbook that Sanders so effectively used to engage millions, including many new voters. Operatives from the Buttigieg and Andrew Yang campaigns also say they are surprised to see their innovations going uncopied, leaving untapped large networks of online activists who could be churning out unique content for Biden and enlisting their friends and families in the effort.

“I’m sure we can do better on the internet; I am positive of that,” Biden said on SnapChat’s “Good Luck America” Tuesday. He cited as evidence his recent Instagram Q&A with “one of the leading soccer players in the world” (Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapinoe) and an episode of his campaign’s podcast with former rival Yang (Biden called him “Andrew Young”), whose unorthodox Democratic candidacy was powered by his online following.

“The fact is,” Biden said, “we are trying.”

His campaign is now doubling the size of its online team and feverishly recruiting talent. Campaign officials insist they are positioned to catch Trump online in due time, and they point to a frenzy of experimentation underway.

The pandemic, with its restrictions on large gatherings, “is forcing us to scale so quickly,” said Rob Flaherty, digital director for the Biden campaign. “But those things making us move so fast are also the dynamics that make it so we can catch up and scale up an operation that can face off in a general election quickly and successfully.”

He said the campaign is soliciting ideas far and wide, and embracing advice from Biden’s former rivals. “We are reaching out to everybody to find out what works,” Flaherty said.

The movement comes as anxieties about Biden’s digital gap with Trump have reached a fever pitch. Prominent Democrats and some campaign operatives have begun very publicly offering the former vice president unsolicited advice on how to energize his online presence.

There is evidence Biden is trying to modernize. One new strategy empowers a network of dozens of volunteers who are adept in social media to build content for issues and themes the campaign is emphasizing on a given day. The effort is overseen not by a Biden operative but by a science teacher in Pennsylvania and a student at Duke University. One recent video generated 2 million views.

The campaign is also casting a wide net in its recruiting efforts, looking for talent both inside and outside the usual political circles. It recently hired the former executive producer of BuzzFeed Video. Architects of the trendsetting online strategies of two candidates who challenged Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, have been hired for digital leadership positions.

“It’s clear Biden’s digital ship is turning. The question now is whether or not it’s too late,” said Smith. “And we’re not going to have the answer to that for months.”

As Biden plays catch-up, Trump supporters have tried to make the digital gap a campaign issue. Campaign adviser and daughter-in-law Lara Trump seized on Biden’s struggle to transition to all-virtual campaigning in a call with reporters last week. “It’s very obvious the Trump campaign was prepared for a time like this and the Biden campaign was not,” she said.

The extent to which it all matters is a point of debate inside the Democratic Party. Some operatives with deep experience in organizing online for candidates say the digital tactics that were necessary to catapult a Sanders or Obama or Trump into the top tier don’t necessarily work for a candidate like Biden, who has been well-known in politics for so long.

Joe Trippi, who managed the digitally groundbreaking presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004, said the tactics that propelled Dean were not nearly as useful to the eventual nominee, establishment stalwart John F. Kerry, then a Massachusetts senator.

“Does Biden need to improve online? Yeah, he does,” Trippi said. “Does it mean he won’t win if he doesn’t? I don’t believe that.”

Trippi points to how Biden crushed his more digitally savvy rivals in the primary. “If it were the case that improving online is a do-or-die situation,” he said, “there is no way he would be the nominee.”

———

Los Angeles Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

———

©2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Campaigns

Coronavirus Changes Nature of Campaign Planning and Spending
Campaigns
Coronavirus Changes Nature of Campaign Planning and Spending
May 22, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - There's no question that the coronavirus outbreak that began in earnest in March profoundly affected the nature of politicking ahead of one of the most consequential elections in modern times. For instance, the latest batch of Federal Election Commission filings, released Wednesday, show that... Read More

Democrats Wrote the Playbook on Digital Organizing, So Why Is Trump Dominating?
Campaigns
Democrats Wrote the Playbook on Digital Organizing, So Why Is Trump Dominating?

WASHINGTON — Political campaign apps are hardly a new phenomenon, but when President Donald Trump recently unveiled the one for his reelection bid, digital innovators on the left responded with alarm — and exasperation. A refrain echoed from executive suites in Silicon Valley to the digital... Read More

2020 Campaigns Go Digital Amid Fears of Coronavirus Spread
2020 Elections
2020 Campaigns Go Digital Amid Fears of Coronavirus Spread

WASHINGTON (AP) — No more rallies. No more door-knocking. And no more in-person fundraisers, raking in dollars from dozens of millionaires at once. The coronavirus has disrupted American life, and the 2020 presidential campaign is no exception. Amid calls for social distancing to stop the pandemic’s spread, President Donald Trump and... Read More

As SC Primary Approaches, Black Vote Poised to Play Decisive Role
2020 Elections
As SC Primary Approaches, Black Vote Poised to Play Decisive Role
February 21, 2020
by Dan McCue

The arrival of the bus made all heads turn. Mostly blue, its side was dominated by the name "Biden" in large red and white letters, and a slogan, declaring it was dispatched to wage a "Battle for the Soul of the Nation." As the bus pulled... Read More

Biden Campaign Confident As South Carolina Primary Approaches
2020 Elections
Biden Campaign Confident As South Carolina Primary Approaches
February 18, 2020
by Dan McCue

Former Vice President Joe Biden's supporters in South Carolina are not cutting and running after the candidate's disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. In fact, canvassers going door-to-door in the neighborhoods of Charleston, South Carolina say what they're hearing more than anything else in their... Read More

Bloomberg to Join Democratic Presidential Contenders at Wednesday’s Debate
2020 Elections
Bloomberg to Join Democratic Presidential Contenders at Wednesday’s Debate
February 18, 2020
by Dan McCue

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has qualified for Wednesday night's presidential candidate debate, the first time the billionaire will appear onstage with his Democratic rivals. A national poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist released on Tuesday morning showed Bloomberg with 19% support among... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top