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Inside Biden’s unusual hidden campaign

President Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, has spent her first months on the job planning a sweeping national reelection effort by squatting in a borrowed office overlooking an Amtrak commuter line on Capitol Hill.

With just three other paid staffers, her entire operation cost $1.4 million from April through June — about an eighth of what President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign spent in the same period in 2011, when it operated out of an imposing office suite in Chicago nearly the size of a football field.

Biden aides say that skeletal quality is not a weakness but the plan.

Beyond the official campaign, much of the machinery that aims to reelect Biden has quietly been churning at full blast, as hundreds of staffers in the national Democratic Party, state affiliates, outside groups and the White House chip in on a broad strategy designed to exploit changes in campaign finance rules — even while the main campaign office itself has yet to be established.

Rodriguez calls it “a new playbook,” one that builds on a little-noticed 2014 Supreme Court ruling relaxing donation limits for wealthy individuals and embraces hard-learned lessons from the covid-engulfed 2020 campaign.

“The partnership has been unique and historic,” she said of the bond between her campaign and the Democratic National Committee, whose offices she has been borrowing while the campaign has not yet opened an official headquarters. “Efficiency is going to be important to us.”

It’s a stark break from the last Democratic presidential reelection campaign. Even when fully built, Biden’s operation will look little like Obama’s sprawling Chicago-based corporation, which included teams of software coders and data scientists, a high council of senior advisers, and hundreds of people who ran field organizing in battleground states.

Instead, Biden is essentially outsourcing much of his campaign to the DNC and party organizations in the 50 states and D.C. With outside groups, Biden insiders believe the total effort could spend as much as $2 billion by November 2024.

Because wealthy donors can now give vastly more to a party than to a candidate, the joint strategy lets Biden rake in much larger individual checks than Obama ever could — with requests to top donors in excess of $900,000 for each of the next two years, in comparison with the $6,600 individuals can give directly to a presidential campaign.

Such money has been funding work once done by candidates and campaigns. It was DNC staffers, not the Biden campaign, that organized most of the fundraisers in recent months that allowed Biden to bring in $72 million, including events attended by party Chair Jaime Harrison. Of that total, only about $20 million went directly to the campaign, with the rest going to party accounts.

National party officials also have been paying for polling, research and message testing while separately building a largely digital field operation, including a TikTok “social ambassador” training in the past week, to lift the Democratic ticket next year. Party media bookers have been the putting campaign surrogates on television and then tracking the media impact.

“The DNC is not something separate,” said another senior Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “It’s the president’s DNC, the president’s list, the president’s people.”

If Biden’s gamble succeeds, his campaign’s tight connection with other Democratic groups around the country not only will strengthen his own efforts but also will catapult other Democrats into office, strengthening his hand in a second term. And while Obama was accused of leaving behind a depleted party infrastructure, Biden hopes to bequeath a powerful operation to his successors.

But there is a risk, political operatives say, in trying to stitch together far-flung party entities in hopes of a single overwhelming win. A more diffuse operation presents management challenges, as state parties and outside groups have their own priorities, tailored to particular candidates, donors or regions.

But for now, party workers in battleground states already are meeting in person with less-committed voters to sell Biden’s accomplishments.

“There are people on the doors in Michigan not just every weekend but some nights,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, who says these door knockers use talking points on the Biden administration’s local impact, delivered from party officials in Washington. “We are already here doing the work.”

Similarly, the cattlemen who attended the Farm Technology Fair in Baraboo, Wisc., in the past week were given the chance to take photos with cardboard cutouts of Biden and Vice President Harris at a party-staffed booth positioned between displays for new livestock feeding machines and fungicide-spraying drones.

“Voters come to the table and they think President Biden and Vice President Harris care about what happens in the agricultural community in Wisconsin,” said Ben Wikler, the state party chair. “We are having a conversation.”

All that spending — effectively a full-fledged Biden campaign outside the campaign — can legally be coordinated with Biden and his team, as long as the purpose is broader than Biden’s reelection and includes other Democratic goals.

“If you can add ‘and Democrats’ to anything we are talking about, the DNC can pay for it,” said a senior party official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We are leaning into our strengths.”

In recent days, the party released a video that repurposes words from a recent speech by a Biden critic, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), to make the case for Biden’s election. The video garnered 42 million views on Twitter and tied the DNC’s record for most views in 2023 on TikTok. The video was created by a DNC employee, Parker Butler, who worked on the Biden campaign in 2020, according to a person familiar with the effort. It was shared on Biden’s campaign social media accounts.

The model in some ways echoes the approach taken by Donald Trump in his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, when almost all of his field organizing and volunteer programs were run through the Republican National Committee. But in that case, the approach stemmed largely from Trump’s lack of interest or experience in running a sophisticated campaign operation, rather than from a carefully thought-out strategy.

Biden’s team hopes it can seize the advantage of a unified party apparatus while Republicans, without an incumbent, are splintered and facing an increasingly bitter primary battle between Trump and his rivals for the presidential nomination.

The Biden campaign plans to bring on more staffers in the coming weeks, as Rodriguez relocates from the DNC in Washington to new offices in Wilmington, Del. Some functions, including raising small-dollar donations and making ads for the campaign, still need to be done in-house, and the campaign is expected to be built out substantially by next year. Closer to the election, the Biden campaign under federal law will be able to pay lower rates for television advertising than other entities can.

But much of the traditional campaign work will not be done at the campaign.

Sophisticated data-gathering technology is now largely available off the shelf, advisers say, so there is less need to hire big teams of data experts. And much of Biden’s political brain trust has indicated, for now at least, that they plan to keep their jobs as presidential advisers at the White House, where they can work on reelection politics in their free time and meet more easily with the president.

That divided structure also is tailored to Biden’s preference for in-person meetings, as he will have his kitchen cabinet of longtime advisers around him at the White House.

Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, says he fully backs the new approach and encouraged Rodriguez to pursue it after she got the job as Biden’s campaign manager.

“These are just wildly different times and places,” Messina said. “My advice was, ‘You have the White House doing your politics, you have the DNC, don’t spend money on the campaign if you don’t have to.’”

A divided operation caused problems for Trump’s 2020 effort when a post-Labor Day breakdown in the coordination of television spending between the Trump campaign and the RNC forced a number of crisis meetings and late spending shifts.

But Biden’s team was able to navigate a similar structure in 2020, when the party funded much of a state-level, covid-era operation that included 2,800 field workers. Persuasion mail in that election cycle also was funded through state parties, as were paid canvassing programs, in which people were hired to target specific groups of voters.

Party leaders plan an even more expansive role this cycle in the Biden operation, as Biden’s aides plan to keep him in the role of president as long as possible before putting him into reelection mode, hoping to show him as a global statesmen while the Republican hopefuls attack and denigrate one another other.

The DNC, which is operating on the assumption that Biden will be the party’s nominee, has begun funding a digital organizing tool called REACH, which will encourage volunteers to push their friends, family members and neighbors to vote for Biden. In 2020, a similar technology, called the Vote Joe App, was funded and operated by the Biden campaign.

The DNC also has been using an app from a company called Greenfly to organize weekly “sync-ups” for what they call their “social ambassadors,” volunteers who are trained in posting pro-Biden material to social media.

The DNC also pushes out daily video clips and memes for the president’s supporters, including graphics on economic progress, a recent photo of Biden with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and videos attacking the abortion policies of potential Republican rivals.

Those include a clip from a 2016 MSNBC interview when Trump said that women should face “some form” of punishment if they had abortions, a position from which he later retreated by saying he would seek only to punish abortion providers who acted outside the law. Democratic Party executives plan to expand that video program later this year.

In an effort to extend their coalition, Biden advisers also have given their blessing, as they did in 2020, to several independent super PAC efforts, including Future Forward and American Bridge, in an apparent effort to set up funding streams for advertising campaigns. Priorities USA, another outside group, is preparing a digital effort to support the president’s reelection.

White House senior adviser Anita Dunn has appeared at American Bridge events, and Biden’s deputy chief of staff, Jen O’Malley Dillon, recently released a statement to the New York Times saying Future Forward would “again play a key role” in the Biden effort.

Another former White House aide, Katie Petrelius, who was finance director for Biden’s 2020 campaign, recently joined Future Forward to help raise money for the group, in a clear signal to Biden donors.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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