Can Biden Unite the Party?
The project of bringing the Democratic Party together made some very big strides in recent weeks. At the most high profile level, Bernie Sanders' withdrawal from the primary race, and his and Elizabeth Warren's endorsements of Biden were symbolically important and went a long way toward calming down worried Democrats. However, it will take a lot more than that to reunify a party that has been deeply divided for a long time. The good news is that under the surface, there are encouraging signs of Biden campaign outreach at a genuine level already going far beyond the efforts of the Hillary campaign. This behind-the-scenes work is more important than most people realize, and it has the potential to pay big dividends not only in the 2020 election but in terms of governing afterwards.
First of all, the new issue working groups that Biden and Bernie announced the day Sanders made his endorsement are critically important. While there was plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiation between the Bernie and Hillary camps over platform language in 2016, nothing remotely like these tangible working groups were created. The process provides a serious opportunity to talk over core goals, hash out the policy specifics that really matter, and come up with creative solutions on how to move in a direction that both progressives and more centrist Democrats can embrace. If these working groups make substantive progress on the big issue divides in the party, that will go a long way to building the bridge between party factions - and make the passage of major legislation all the more likely if Democrats win a big election victory. Given that in many areas the campaign has already moved in a progressive direction, these working groups could matter a lot if done right.
Beyond that, I have been deeply impressed with the Biden staff's attention to progressive outreach. Unlike all but a few presidential campaigns in my 35+ year history of presidential politics, the Biden staff at the most senior levels are focused on reaching out to progressive groups, social media influencers, and activists. Usually, progressive outreach is assigned to some medium-level staff operative who isn't given much help from the rest of the staff. This time, the campaign is doing things far better, at a much higher level. So when discussions on issues, message, tactics, and strategy are held, there is a real impact inside the campaign.
This behind-the-scenes outreach, combined with the substantive issue discussions within the working groups, will matter enormously throughout the 2020 campaign. We will never get all the Bernie supporters on board, but truth be told, no nominee's campaign ever gets all the supporters of their main opponents. A little remembered fact is that, according to some of the analytics and polling done at the time, close to a fifth of Hillary's supporters did not vote for Obama, and he still won with 53% of the vote. But we can get most of those Bernie voters back, and more importantly we can build enthusiasm in general among the young voters who were most with him. We can get more volunteers and more small online donors if we can build that enthusiasm, and it's all going to matter -- but more on that in a moment.
This early work is critical, but it's a long campaign with lots of twists and turns in the road. One thing we have to avoid is unforced errors which are tone deaf to key constituencies and progressives in general, like the recent ad on Trump and China. It is of course okay to criticize Trump for his handling of Covid-19 and to push back on the ridiculous Beijing Biden theme the Trump campaign has been pushing, but Biden’s attack ad on China was so aggressive that it almost mirrored Trump's "Chinese virus" bullshit, which even he has stopped saying. The campaign has to do better.
Beyond avoiding obvious mistakes like this, to keep building enthusiasm on the election in November, the Biden campaign needs to make three really big and really critical decisions. These decisions are closely related to each other, each dramatically impacting on the others.
The first thing the campaign needs to decide is its fundraising strategy going forward: will it be primarily with big donors or primarily with smaller online donations? Corporate donors are the biggest barrier to unifying the Democratic Party, getting young people and base voters engaged and excited, and building the kind of enthusiasm that will lead to more online donations, more volunteers making calls and sharing social media content with their friends, and higher base voter/youth turnout. They don't want the campaign to reach out to Bernie and Elizabeth Warren supporters, and they are sending lots of messages to the campaign: don't get too progressive, or we won't fund your campaign. Given how far behind the Biden campaign is compared to Trump money-wise, this is a serious threat.
Thankfully, there's an alternative: small online donations. Bernie and Elizabeth proved you can raise really serious money from small donors if they get excited about your candidacy. Those two campaigns raised far more money than Biden during the primary while doing no big donor fundraising. If the Biden campaign does what makes sense politically, addressing their biggest weakness in the voter coalition against Trump - the enthusiasm gap among young and progressive voters - it can dramatically expand its low-dollar fundraising base. Whatever money they might lose by moving in a more progressive direction on issues would be more than made up for by the increased enthusiasm among all those Bernie and Warren supporters, and it's not like the campaign still can't raise plenty of high-dollar contributions from all the sane wealthy people who know we need a new president.
A closely related strategic decision - to invest heavily into increasing and improving its organic engagement on social media - will matter greatly when it comes to the voter enthusiasm gap and the online fundraising gap. Right now, the main digital strategy Democrats are using is buying ads online. Nothing wrong with digital advertising, and I am glad Democrats are doing more of it and not concentrating most of their ad money on TV, but ads alone will not win the internet, nor win this election. As is common knowledge among political pros and reporters alike, the Republicans are eating our lunch in terms of social media. In a campaign where we probably won't be able to do much in the way of door-knocking or campaign rallies, where most of campaign activity will be online, organic engagement online is essential. If the Biden campaign is successfully engaging and motivating young progressives in all the ways we discussed above, there will be a natural opening for building an online army of literally millions of people willing to share fun and exciting content online.
Right now there are at least 14 progressive Facebook pages with over a million fans, led by the folks at Occupy Democrats, who do a brilliant job of engaging their followers with great shareable content. The Biden campaign and other Democrats need to work with the people who developed these pages. They should bring them to the table and make them part of their online leadership. But beyond these big players, there are hundreds of smaller progressive pages which have tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of fans, and tens of thousands of progressive individuals with several hundred or even thousands of friends on Facebook. There are thousands of people on Twitter with more than a thousand people who follow them. It is time to go out and find these progressives and inspire them to work on behalf of Democratic campaigns -- a lot easier to do if your message is exciting and your agenda appeals to your progressive base. We're going to need all that online energy in the Covid-19 election of 2020.
The final thing the Biden campaign must do to build enthusiasm in the progressive world is by far the most important of all: pick a running mate who progressives will be excited to support. I worked hard to be a bridge person between the Bernie and Hillary campaigns on the platform, on outreach, in many different ways. In spite of the long, bitter primary campaign, in spite of all the issues between the two sides, I felt like we were making genuine progress. But with the Kaine pick, everything we had been painstakingly working on to build that bridge got blown apart. It wasn't that Kaine was a bad guy, it was that he symbolized to progressives a cautious, insider, establishment choice. He was the wrong man at the wrong moment.
To energize and unite the party, with the enthusiasm gap being what it is this year, with progressives and young people cynical that the Democratic Party will ever change, with Joe Biden being the ultimate insider candidate, the VP needs to be a strong progressive. Elizabeth Warren would be an outstanding pick, someone who is well known to the world as a strong progressive stalwart, and someone who has shown a unique ability to take on the arrogance of Trump and his cronies. Or maybe it's an exciting young progressive woman of color like Stacey Abrams. Or maybe it's a progressive woman like Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, who has proven repeatedly that she can win a key swing state. But if we want to unite the party; if we want to shore up enthusiasm from progressives and young people; if we want to show that the vice-president is a bold, gutsy thinker who won't just do the most predictable thing, a strong progressive pick is the way to go.
The Biden campaign has impressed the hell out of me so far in its outreach to progressives, its openness to dialogue on issues and tangible way of showing it with these working groups, and with its movement in a progressive direction. I think Biden has the potential to build a campaign that surprises people with his ability to engage and excite voters in a way he hadn't figured out in the primary campaign. If he and his staffers keep making good decisions, the Biden presidency, born in a moment of crisis following the Covid-19 crisis and the wreckage of the Trump years, could be hugely historically important.