After the pass and start since Biden became the presumptive nominee, his campaign on Friday announced the first in what senior aides say will be a wave of new digital hires, tapping three top executives from Biden's former Democratic primary rivals for leadership roles. The campaign is also considering outsourcing some digital features and remains in talks with Hawkfish, the Michael Bloomberg-based data and technology company and other Democratic groups.
The Trump and Biden building brands are very different. Trump's campaign, with widespread awareness that controversial fans' flames on social media, arouse anger – against Trump's opponents, against China and against the media. The helpers of the prayers meanwhile are aiming for empathy and feel-good moments.
Rob Flaherty, Biden's digital director, endorsed Trump's campaign to run a "smart marketing operation" and "a very impressive digital-first campaign." But, he said, Biden has time to match it.
"For me, on a broad level, if Donald Trump is the Internet equivalent of some hateful meme, we are the Internet equivalent of one of those videos … it's a soldier coming up and getting a hug," Flaherty said. "It would be completely inauthentic to build a program around Joe Biden that is bomb-breaking divisive and appeals to the worst in people. We couldn't even if we wanted to, because it's not who he is."
He added: "We are living through one of the most existential changes in the way the Internet is likely to behave since Trump was elected. We are in a room where a lot is changing. There is much to suggest that people are turning to consuming good news , good things because of the environment they live in. "
Biden's approach to the race in 2020 during the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic this week triggered two pieces of opinion in The New York Times by top Democrats.
"While TV is still a strong force, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are all important in a Covid-19 world where candidate travel and voter contact will be severely limited. In many respects is campaign, not an important part of it. "
That, Smith wrote, would allow Biden – whose own social media channels have relatively small followings – to reach wider audiences via more popular channels.
"These numbers appeal to very different fan bases; celebrity backers like them can bring the campaign's message to unconventional and non-political outlets that might otherwise be prone to a weed of choice – sports talk radio, top 40 stations and gossip sites," wrote Smith.
The helpers of the bid say they are doing what the Democrats propose publicly – but it has taken time. An early example: Biden and wife Jill Biden recently appeared on an Instagram Live video featuring soccer star Megan Rapinoe, one of the most famous female athletes in the nation.
"I think we're in this phase of being able to make the most of the experimentation that happened around the primary, put it in a pot and build a program that we think is designed to get to that moment," Flaherty said . "And we're actively recruiting talent to sort it out. We're starting to scale up and build that infrastructure."
Slow digital build-up
For digital operators outside of Biden's digital team, it is clear that the former vice president's campaign was caught on foot and plays catch-up after an unexpectedly fast and decisive primary victory.
Fear of a collapse caused by the coronavirus induced economic decline slowed the hiring process. However, Biden's campaign is now on a more solid financial basis than it was when speed brought the broken Biden to an almost sweep on Super Tuesday.
Biden limped into South Carolina's primary in late February after three straight losses. But his blowout victory there led to a surge of momentum in the competitions that followed, and eventually left him the last candidate in the Democratic race.
In a short time, Biden's campaign had gone from a slow fight that followed the democrats' digital and organizing efforts to the supposed nominee.
But the moment also brought chaos. On the night of Michigan's primary, Biden had planned a campaign in Cleveland, Ohio. But concerns about the coronavirus spread quickly, and his campaign decided instead to hold a small event in Philadelphia.
Since then, Biden has been home in Delaware. His staff works remotely. And fundraising has been virtual. As he began broadcasting events online, Biden took the time to work out the cracks – trenching a podium aide had originally set up, for example, and was struggling through technical difficulties in the campaign's first Zoom broadcast.
Under new leadership and with questions about whether it could effectively raise in the new environment, Biden's campaign waited, rather than gathering a top aide, fearing that it would not be able to support the remaining eight months of the presidential election.
"It's unusual for them to be so small," said a top Democratic digital strategist working for a competing primary candidate, noting that the Biden campaign "didn't set up the digital team the way others had been" during the primary .
Trump's Death Star
The need to restore Bidden's digital operation is a concern for Democrats largely because Trump's campaign over the past four years has built a digital behemoth.
The Trump campaign's digital operation, which includes more than 100 employees, has excelled in raising money, and helped the Trump campaign raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the 2020 effort, while providing supporters with countless ways to connect with online campaign.
Many Democrats, who some dislike for Trump's campaigners, praise the digital operation his team has built, even though they look at it as daunting.
"What they're trying to do is pull everyone into this casino … and hopefully keep them there and hopefully inoculate them from bad news," said Stefan Smith, Pete Buttigegg's Online Engagement Director during the primary in 2020. "(Target is to) make it harder to get voters out of the ecosystem so they can save them for November. "
To do so, Trump's digital operation has launched an app that gives supporters a place for all of Trump's content. Not only can supporters sign up to call on Trump's behalf and sign up for events, but the app also includes the campaign's nightly broadcasts, which aides say has been viewed more than 300 million times since the start of April.
"The Trump campaign has a significant advantage because of our early and ongoing investment in data and technology infrastructure," said Ali Pardo, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign. "Although Joe Biden had the money, he couldn't buy the infrastructure our campaign has put in place over the last five years."
Smith said Trump's digital strategy is as "brilliant" as it fears for Democrats, who know it will be difficult to pull potential voters out of the ecosystem in November.
"What they are aware of is that this is not a political thing they do, what they do is a cultural thing," Smith said. "So if you find identity in being a Trump supporter and you're in a community of people like that … now you're incentivized to stay in the ecosystem. It's like Candy Crush."
Ice cream and aviators
Biden has leaned into those memories in 2019. He often stopped for ice cream on the campaign trail, and blasting aviator posters with Biden's name on them was a permanent fixture in rallies. But now that Biden is running to be chief, the memes have landed differently than when he was Obama's understudy.
"It's a cautious campaign, and there are restrictions on virality," said Emmy Bengtson, a Wavelength Strategy partner who previously worked for the New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's primary campaign in 2020 and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016. "A viral meme doesn't necessarily mean you should be president. Joe Biden eats ice cream, Joe Biden flyer, Joe Biden in a convertible – it doesn't necessarily get people to vote for you. "
Bengtson argued that the Clinton campaign faced a similar challenge. The former secretary of state, before running for office, was known online for inspiring a meme site called Texts from Hillary, where pictures of Clinton on her phone were paired with funny phrases. There is a "difference between a badass Secretary of State Hillary and whether you want to vote for her for president," she said.
And another top digital strategist said the role of vice president is "more of a brand than a presidential candidate because people are less focused on what you have to say" and more willing to consume that image through photos, memes and fast, black video clips.
As presidential, the strategist said, voters are "intensely focused more on what you have to say and what you stand for."
Biden's campaign has in recent weeks issued obscurations with endorsements and position papers. But his campaign has also taken on an empathetic tone.
Last Saturday in April, Biden's campaign marked the one-year anniversary of the official launch with a nationwide series of community services and volunteer events it called "SOUL of the Nation Saturday."
The following day, hundreds of Biden volunteers participated in a training program focusing on digital organizing and creating web content that strengthened Biden's message.
Ryan Wright, a Biden volunteer in northwest Ohio, participated in the training, saying the campaign was focused on converting the foot soldiers who would normally be a phone bank and knocking on doors to digital organizers who can get in touch with people in their neighborhoods and communities. He said that volunteers' conversations with potential Biden supporters are also about coronavirus.
"We're just trying to see how people feel, right. That's a big part of that, too," Wright said.