Where Is Biden’s Ground Game?
As Biden faces an enthusiasm gap in the polls, there are signs the campaign’s field operation is lagging.
This report was written by Walker Bragman.
As Joe Biden’s campaign faces questions about its lackadaisical outreach strategy, the former vice president’s campaign manager boasted on Tuesday about the campaign’s growing volunteer program. But Biden’s volunteer operation is still smaller than the one built during the primary by Bernie Sanders, with just seven weeks to go until the general election.
Democrats in swing states have started voicing concerns that the Biden campaign has not opened any standalone offices in battleground states and — unlike down-ballot Democrats — isn’t knocking doors. Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon defended their outreach program on Tuesday in a live interview with Politico.
“We spend so much time talking about tactics, but, fundamentally, knocking on a door and not reaching anyone doesn’t get you much except leaving a piece of lit behind,” O’Malley Dillon said. “You might as well send a piece of mail.” She added: “We have 2,500 new volunteers that join the campaign every day.”
Like the Sanders campaign, the Biden campaign organizes its volunteer network over Slack in several channels, including one for general intake, one for texters, and another for phone bankers. Screenshots obtained by TMI show the campaign’s volunteer Slack was still lagging behind the Sanders program as of Tuesday.
The Biden volunteer slack had roughly 62,000 in the general intake channel, 16,000 in the text channel, and 23,000 in the call channel on Tuesday. The numbers represent a substantial increase from early this month, when there were 37,000 volunteers in the Biden general intake channel — but still well short of the Sanders slack, which still had about 71,000 volunteers, even though the progressive senator officially dropped out of the presidential race in April.
Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from TMI.
The Biden campaign has not exactly made volunteering easy. Last Wednesday, actress and activist Susan Sarandon pointed out that the volunteer section on the campaign’s website was badly outdated. As Sarandon noted, the “organizing tool kit” had been rolled over from the primaries and was not updated for the general. The campaign updated the site to fix the issue last Thursday.
Polls have consistently shown Biden ahead of President Donald Trump both nationally and at the state level as well as in terms of favorability. But below the surface, the numbers are less secure — the races in most key swing states are still close.
Throughout his campaign Biden has struggled to generate voter enthusiasm — a metric which proved vital in 2016. Leading into the conventions, Biden trailed Trump by 30 points in terms of enthusiasm, although the gap had been steadily narrowing. Following the conventions, the difference shrunk to 9 points, though Biden did not get a post-convention polling bounce.
Biden’s support among Latino voters is lower than Clinton’s was and young voters remain largely unenthusiastic about their choices in November. The youth vote was critical to former President Barack Obama’s winning coalition and youth participation in politics has been trending upwards. A recent study from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that “nearly one-third of youth are potential or actual volunteers — that translates to roughly 10 million youth.”
Early gaffes did not help in that regard. In January 2018, the former Vice President told the Los Angeles Times that he had “no empathy” for young people complaining about how difficult they have it.
"The younger generation now tells me how tough things are — give me a break," said Biden to chuckles from the audience. "No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break."
Policy has not been a central focus for Biden, who has instead been campaigning on vague promises to “restore the soul of the nation.”
The campaign has been directing phone banking volunteers for Florida to avoid policy discussions with undecided voters and send them to the Biden campaign website for details, according to screenshots from the Slack channel.
“Question: is the training script similar to the actual live script?” a volunteer asked in one screenshot. “Reason I’m asking is that the training script doesn’t give a lot of information about Biden/Harris’s policy points, agenda details, POV.”
“The undecided voter [script] shows the basics that you need to know. Refer people to JoeBiden.com for detail,” a moderator responded.
“The campaign doesn’t really want us to talk about policy, because that would open the door to a conflict,” another volunteer pointed out in a separate screenshot. “They want us to stick to Joe.”
The moderator agreed, adding that “we are here to refer to them to the campaign.”
A copy of the referenced phone banking script reveals vague talking points across a range of hot-button issues including the economy and jobs, health care, immigration, racial justice, the pandemic, and climate change. The talking points focus on Trump but offer almost no specifics about Biden’s plans.
A Pew Research Center poll from last month before the Democratic National Convention revealed that although just 9 percent of Biden’s supporters were backing him for his policy positions, the overwhelming majority — 56 percent — said their support was based on the simple fact that he wasn’t Trump. By contrast, 21 percent of the president’s supporters said they were backing him for his policies.
Biden’s numbers have some progressives concerned. Last month, filmmaker Michael Moore warned Democrats not to take anything for granted, highlighting the fact that Biden’s leads in swing states are generally smaller than Clinton’s.
On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Sen. Sanders has been quietly urging the Biden campaign to embrace a more progressive economic agenda, fearing that he could come up short in November. Sanders later denied the report, assuring MSNBC viewers that Biden is in an “excellent position” to win, while adding that the campaign needed to do more “than just go after Trump.”
Brent Welder, a Kansas trial attorney and former delegate for Sanders, told TMI that Biden’s sluggish volunteer operation is “the inevitable effect when the DNC pushes through a nominee that is more interested in turning out Republicans to vote than his own base voters.”
“As a long time national field operative, my advice to Joe Biden is to give people something to believe in,” Welder said. “He could start by embracing Medicare for All.”
While a task force made up of Biden and Sanders allies produced a series of compromise proposals designed to woo left-leaning voters, the Biden campaign has reportedly told Wall Street not to worry about the portions that might threaten their profits.
“They basically said, ‘Listen, this is just an exercise to keep the [Elizabeth] Warren people happy, and don’t read too much into it,’” an anonymous investment banker told the Washington Post.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Drew Angerer
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