President Biden’s political advisers are preparing a strategy for his likely 2024 reelection campaign that would dramatically expand efforts to organize content-sharing between supporters and their friends on digital platforms, including TikTok and WhatsApp, where political advertising is not allowed, according to people involved in the effort.
The new plans, which build upon lessons from the 2020 campaign, are just one part of an expansive research effort funded by the Democratic National Committee to prepare for Biden’s expected campaign launch next year. Top advisers have been testing ways to reactivate volunteers and donors, and they completed a review this summer of the shifts in how voters consumed political information over the last two years.
The review found phone-based apps and streaming television have grabbed an increasing share of attention from voters, which offer fewer opportunities for direct advertising, according to multiple people involved in the effort, including some who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations. Local television news continues to be popular, as does the use of search engines to ferret out political information.
But much of the focus of party strategists has been on groups of voters who are increasingly spending time consuming information in private digital environments, mostly through their phones, or on public platforms where paid political advertising is not available, including chat threads and other smaller communities built around nonpolitical interests, like fitness. Democratic strategists have concluded that in many cases, volunteers can have more impact by creating or distributing content to their digital communities than by spending their time on more traditional canvassing operations.
“The idea is not just to meet people where they are, but it’s to meet people everywhere they are,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, a senior Biden adviser, speaking about the shifting media environment. “And that’s complicated and hard.”
As a result, the Biden team has been reviewing an ongoing series of experiments quietly run by the national party and Democratic senate campaigns involving once-obscure organizing strategies, which became more common in the 2022 midterms. The options include paying social media influencers to produce and share supportive content and encouraging volunteers or paid organizers to directly push messages to targeted voters in their phone contacts. There are also technologies that the party has been reviewing that make it easier for volunteers to share campaign content on their networks.
Biden advisers emphasize that the new techniques will not replace traditional field programs. Investments in door-to-door canvassing, for example, are expected to increase over what past Democratic campaigns did before the coronavirus pandemic.
“The places where people get information and the places where people communicate with each other about politics continue to fragment,” said Anita Dunn, another senior adviser to Biden who has also been reviewing the landscape. “As you think about how to communicate with this country, it is an additive process.”
Biden has not yet made a final decision on whether to run for reelection, though he has said that is his “intention,” with a formal decision expected in the first three months of next year. His senior staff, in the meantime, is moving forward with preparations, with a small group of senior advisers meeting regularly with him and first lady Jill Biden at the White House residence since September.
The parallel research and planning process echo similar quadrennial efforts over the last two decades by both parties in the off years, a symptom of the rapid pace of technological changes in how Americans consume political information. The historic practice of relying on 30-second television spots and free media in major national news organizations to communicate during the campaign increasingly leaves out whole communities of potential voters.
The early conversations have involved O’Malley Dillon, Dunn, the White House director of digital strategy Rob Flaherty, DNC executive director Sam Cornale and Jose Nunez, the national party’s organizing director. A number of outside consultants have also been involved, including Addisu Demissie, who ran Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign, Dewey Square’s Minyon Moore and Precision Strategies’ Teddy Goff, who helped run digital campaign operations for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Flaherty is expected to take a senior digital role in the Biden reelection campaign next year, according to a person familiar with the planning.
Democratic strategists are aiming to take advantage of a chaotic Republican presidential primary next year to build a large network of volunteers and donors for the reelection campaign, under the assumption that Biden will not face a serious challenge for his party’s nomination. Presidential reelection campaigns, which tend to be well funded and have long lead times, historically benefit from building larger operations earlier in the cycle.
“They are going to be beating each other up for a year,” one Democrat involved in the process said about Republicans. “We are taking the biggest distributed organizing operation that has ever been built and figuring out how do we add in the content part of this.”
When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, pioneering new ways of email fundraising and organizing thousands of house parties through his campaign website, the smartphone and social media platforms like Twitter, were novelties. By his 2012 reelect, Facebook had become a major news source, and the campaign built an iPhone app to power its door-knocking operation.
Email and text messages remain the basic building block of grass roots fundraising. But the rise of social media has made digital communication between individual voters more important. One person involved in the planning said there is a focus on creating new metrics for the sharing and absorption of organic digital content on social media and inside digital friend groups.
The challenge of TikTok, a Chinese-owned platform which is banned from White House staff phones for national security reasons, has also been a topic of discussion. Because of the platform’s popularity among younger voters and its habit of recommending new content to users, Biden’s aides see it as a particularly potent tool in the 2024 campaign. Flaherty has taken to monitoring the social network through a personal iPod Touch that is disconnected from any of his government accounts, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.
Democrats are also focused on finding ways to encourage supporters to take part in private online communities — whether it is Facebook groups or Fantasy Football text message chains — to reach voters, including many younger voters who don’t consume much traditional news coverage. Other ideas have revolved around building new online communities around particular political interests, a practice that has become common in larger campaigns in recent years. Over the last two years, the DNC, which inherited Biden’s list of 200,000 volunteers from the 2020 campaign, mobilized and trained about 1,000 supporters to share and distribute content, a party spokesperson said.
“It is a long bet on relational organizing,” said another Democratic strategist involved in the effort, who also emphasized the increased investments planned for door knocking. “It is a long bet on a content-centric model to get volunteers to leverage their platforms to be evangelists for the campaign.”
The successful Pennsylvania Senate campaign of John Fetterman demonstrated some of the emerging options available to Biden’s team this year. Sophie Ota, the campaign’s digital director, oversaw an operation that created and nurtured private Facebook groups, as well as large direct message chats on Twitter and Instagram, where campaign organizers could feed supporters digital content about Fetterman to share on their social networks. The campaign recruited New Jersey celebrities, like Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s Jersey Shore and the musician Steven Van Zandt, to record viral content mocking Fetterman’s opponent, Mehmet Oz, for his roots in the neighboring state.
In a separate program, the Fetterman team provided supporters with an app, called Rally, that allowed them to connect their friend group to the campaign’s voter file. The supporters were then prompted to send the targeted voter specific messages about voting or requesting absentee ballots, Ota said. A separate webpage, Fettermemes.com, offered supporters tools to clip and share embarrassing videos of Oz.
“People don’t just read the political news in the newspaper. You have to actually get them engaged in other ways,” Fetterman’s campaign consultant Rebecca Katz, a partner at New Deal Strategies, said. “There has always been a space for earned media and paid media but rarely have we talked about the merging of the two and being a bit more creative.”
Another model was used in the Georgia Senate race runoff, where Rally was deployed by an independent expenditure group as a tool to activate communities that are more disinterested in voting. The group hired 1,481 “community ambassadors” who were paid $200 to spend about five hours contacting their friends who were identified by the voting file to encourage them to vote, according to people involved in the effort. More than 67,000 voters were contacted to support Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) before the runoff.
“We’ve learned that relational can scale, and that relational — paid relational in particular — is powerful for reaching voters campaigns can’t otherwise reach,” said Davis Leonard, the CEO of Rally, in a statement. “And we’ve seen the ecosystem shift towards understanding that Democrats need to embrace relational to expand the electorate and win.”
The DNC has explored using another app called Greenfly, which provides organizations with a platform for distributing content to their supporters to instantly share in their social media platforms. Those involved said decisions about exactly what technologies would be employed by a Biden reelection campaign had not been made.
But the president’s team is clearly planning to build out an approach that has not existed before, in terms of scale and ambition, for distributing digital content with organizers.
“The nature of news consumption and information absorption has radically decentralized,” said another strategist involved in the planning effort. “We have got to be able to engage in an information war.”