Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee are working in lockstep to defeat President Donald Trump in November — ending years of discord dating back to 2008 between the party’s nominee and its central leadership.
The close collaboration between Biden and the party is a stark turnaround from four years ago, when problems at the DNC, including leaked emails, tens of millions of dollars in debt and bitterness over the presidential primary hobbled nominee Hillary Clinton.
This cycle, Biden’s team is working more closely with the DNC than any candidate in recent history, according to interviews with more than 20 veteran Democratic operatives. The two teams coordinate strategy on advertising, fundraising and messaging and share operational costs in ways that Clinton and Barack Obama did not do with the party.
The collaboration has helped Biden’s campaign quickly scale up from what staff say was a “scrappy” operation in the primary to the kind of juggernaut needed to take on Trump’s re-election effort, which as of the end of June had spent $650 million and raised nearly $1 billion.
While a presidential nominee and the party always work together in some fashion, past relationships have been more adversarial and less productive. Obama decided in 2008 to favor his own campaign structure over the DNC. Clinton tried in 2016 to prop up the organization, but it was plagued by Russian hacks and party infighting.
The DNC is essential to presidential candidates because it’s allowed to take in six-figure donations that can be spent by the DNC itself and state parties. Together, Biden, the DNC and related state committees raised $282 million during the second quarter, half of that in June alone.
Veteran Democratic operatives and party officials said the collaboration between the DNC and the Biden campaign is unprecedented in modern campaigning and is boosting the efficiency of campaigning amid the pandemic.
“It’s really an extraordinary thing,” said Howard Dean, who chaired the DNC through the 2008 presidential election after seeking the 2004 nomination. “I haven’t seen this in my 40 years of presidential politics.”
Dean recalled that when Obama secured the nomination in June 2008, “I handed over the keys to the DNC and got on a bus” and did a three-month bus tour in support of Democrats. But the Obama campaign used the DNC as little more than a bank. Once he was elected, his team shifted its attention to building its own re-election campaign, Organizing for America, rather than to boosting the party infrastructure.
Part of the new collaboration was born of necessity. Democrats privately acknowledge that the Biden campaign needed a robust party apparatus more than past nominees. Biden won the primary with a smaller team and fewer resources than his top opponents. He entered the race late without a political operation in place, had been unable to recruit some of the party’s top presidential campaign staff and struggled to raise money. Some of those Democrats have expressed surprise at just how much the Biden operation has leaned on the DNC in recent months.
In the Trenches
The Biden campaign now directs DNC staff, and the two hold daily planning calls. Former Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz, who now serves as a senior adviser, coordinates those efforts.
Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said the DNC staff’s attitude was, “We’re here to work, to be additional ammo. We’re here to get in the trenches with you guys.”
Much of the work that the DNC picks up in communications and research is focused on Trump, since parties traditionally lead many of the attacks against an opponent. The DNC is also home to the Trump War Room, which for five years has been compiling research and leading attacks against him. In the most competitive states, more than 600 field organizers and a handful of communications staff hired by the DNC during the primary now take direction from the campaign.
The DNC is also running its own ads, planned with the Biden campaign, that aggressively target Trump, while the campaign’s ads largely focus on Biden’s biography and policies.
Brad Woodhouse, a former DNC communications director, said the ads “showed a level of coordination and collaboration and trust between the DNC and the campaign that didn’t exist in 2016.”
“The DNC being assigned to run these ads is an additional level of responsibility that we didn’t have when I was there in 2008 and 2012,” he added.
By comparison, in 2016, the party was deeply in debt and raising no money on its own. So when Clinton secured the nomination, she built her own general election operation.
“I think the DNC and state parties both hand in hand realized in 2016 one of the reasons maybe Secretary Clinton did not utilize the DNC infrastructure was because there was nothing there,” said Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb.
Trump’s re-election effort works closely with the Republican National Committee. The joint operation between the campaign and the RNC has state directors in 17 states, and they now have more than 1,100 paid staff in the field, some of whom have been there since 2016. The two organizations have been closely collaborating since Trump became the nominee four years ago, and RNC officials say they have prioritized bolstering their joint operation since then.
Biden’s collaboration with the DNC this time is helping to bolster the party’s long-term health, Democrats say, so it doesn’t have to rebuild from scratch every four years.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez began working quickly after his election to rebuild the party apparatus. He increased the monthly stipend to state parties from $7,500 to $10,000 to strengthen operations beyond Washington. He dispatched staffers to critical states and took pains to ensure the party didn’t appear to favor one primary candidate over another, the way many believed his predecessor, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, favored Clinton over Bernie Sanders.
“At the start of this cycle, we doubled-down on building the kinds of programs we knew our eventual nominee would need once they came through the primary, and I’m proud that we’ve built a DNC that can work effectively to augment and support Vice President Biden’s campaign,” Perez said. “That should be the norm.”
The Democrats have also worked since 2016 to fortify their cybersecurity infrastructure after the release of thousands of internal emails that damaged Clinton’s campaign. The party now also monitors disinformation about Democrats and voting on social media platforms, alerting companies about content that should be moderated.
Additionally, the DNC has focused on improving the quality of its voter files as part of the Democratic Data Exchange, a new entity that can also be accessed by state parties and outside groups. In January, the DNC announced it had bought the cell phone numbers of every eligible voter in the country, which would be integrated into the national voter file, giving campaigns a new way to potentially reach millions.
As it became clear in March that he was going to win the nomination, Biden brought in Obama and DNC alum Jen O’Malley Dillon to be his campaign manager to begin building for the general election, taking the DNC’s existing operations into account. That was only possible because the campaign was confident in the DNC’s capabilities, Bedingfield said.
“We had the opportunity to be choosy about how we wanted to build out and how we wanted to structure and who we wanted to hire. We absolutely had a scrappy team during the primary but it’s not like we were hurting for options to build out our capacity and to build out the campaign,” she said.
After Clinton’s loss to Trump, her campaign manager Robby Mook recommended ways the DNC could better prepare for 2020, including helping campaigns get their footing in battleground states as the general election began, improving the stability of voter file technology and making sure that voter data was kept updated, all of which the DNC has done.
“Biden is really fortunate to have a DNC that focused in the off year on the critical infrastructure development that needed to be done that’s not exciting, that nobody talks about, but it’s a huge problem if it doesn’t happen,” Mook said. “The DNC is really lucky to have leadership of the Biden campaign that really understands the value they can bring and is going to work in partnership with them to make sure the DNC is leveraged to the greatest extent possible.”
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