Joe Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign is coming into focus, and it doesn’t look so much like Obama’s. Is that a bad thing?
Some Democratic organizers and campaigners think so, for reasons several of them recently discussed with Politico. Biden hasn’t staffed up in several battleground states, for example, though that situation is beginning to change. Some worry that without people on the ground, rival narratives can go unchallenged and disinformation can take hold.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is training volunteers in bulk, and it’s lining up influencers with important followings. Overall, its spokespeople seem assured that grassroots outreach is under control. What gives?
Two things: money, and a realistic appraisal of how America works in 2023. Let’s follow the money first. Remember the Obama years? Glory times for the left, despite all the frustrations working with those pesky Republicans in Congress. But for state-level Democrats, times were not so great. The Obama machine raised plenty for his campaigns, but state parties seem to have been on the back burner, even when they weren’t preparing to implode. During Obama’s presidency, his party lost a historic number of state legislative seats.
Come 2023, and the fundraising situation at least has started to turn. One of the most underreported developments in the political world this year? The joint fundraising agreements the Biden campaign struck with the DNC and every Democratic state party (even DC’s).
These take advantage of looser donation limits to allow a single donor to give close to a million dollars, simply by giving to the state parties, the national party and the Biden campaign at once. The combined party/campaign operation could spend as much as $2 billion before Election Day 2024.
The money that goes to parties rather than directly to Biden’s team will help take the place of the grassroots organizing machine that Barack Obama had to build from the ground up — twice. This time, Democrats still hope to have a robust organization on the field, but many of the staff will be paid and managed by the DNC or the state parties, not by the presidential campaign itself.
Unlike Obama’s two field campaigns, this one may also be built to last. Particularly if at least some of the money keeps flowing after the next presidential inauguration, the staff, supporter lists, volunteer networks and canvassing-derived data will have a chance to stick around. After working in Texas politics in the ’90s, I never discount the chances of a Democratic state party completely blowing it. But we could be looking at the beginning of an era when Democratic field successes aren’t so ephemeral.
Of course, Biden’s actual campaign isn’t ignoring grassroots voter contact; they’re just reimagining it. They’ve already held mass trainings to get volunteers accustomed to the relational-organizing tool Reach, originally developed for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s first race in 2018 and now being used on the ground in a pilot Biden organizing campaign in two states. Among other things, Reach will help the campaign connect with priority voters through their friends and family, not just strangers. It may help the campaign connect with voters who won’t answer the phone, don’t look at commercial TV and who’ll ignore even the finest of online ads.
Biden’s team is also organizing online influencers, following up on a robust effort in 2020. Back then, Biden supporters turned TikTok into one of his top video platforms, even though the campaign didn’t have an official presence there. Since then, his White House communications outreach has also focused on influencers on TikTok and other channels — at times, perhaps, to the neglect of the traditional media.
Now that he’s a candidate again, expect some serious attention given to TikTokers, podcasters, YouTubers and Twitch streamers, plus the devotees of who knows what self-publishing platform rises in the next few months. AI-enabled mind-meld? If it might persuade voters, they may give it a try.
This strategy reflects the fragmented media environment in which campaigns function today. Someone has a few thousand followers in the right demographic or the right region? Get them on your side and feed them content on which to riff. Similarly, the campaign has already invested in television ads aimed at relatively niche audiences, such as Asian-American business owners.
Expect to see much more of that kind of focused content next year, whether delivered digitally or through media popular in particular communities. Not surprisingly, Biden’s folks have specifically mentioned CTV/streaming ads, which combine a bigger screen with the targeting capability of programmatic video.
So now we know what it takes to turn out voters in 2024: the kitchen sink. Field organizing supported by the state parties and the national party, in conjunction with the presidential campaign. Virtual organizing supported by the presidential campaign in conjunction with the state and national parties. Niche messaging targeted via media channel and via voter data. Friend-to-friend outreach to cut through the clutter.
Influencers to reach beyond the usual suspects. All aimed at the relatively small slice of the electorate that is either persuadable or is more likely to turn out for your side if you poke them from several dozen directions at once. Slather on the local and national TV ads and you are good to go.
Of course, now we have a little less than eleven months to find out if it actually works.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the 2023 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a veteran of more than twenty-seven years in digital politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.