How does a campaign take a 77-year-old man — who admits he needs his granddaughter’s help with his cellphone and pitches himself as sober and reasonable — and make him go viral?
That perplexing challenge has become a consuming focus of Joe Biden’s campaign as it tries to finally up its digital game to compete against a challenger who not only understands intuitively how to generate clicks and buzz — but boasts a massive and sophisticated digital operation to amplify his message.
So far, Biden’s paltry digital team of about 25 people has decided mostly to eschew the combative fare preferred by the president’s campaign in favor of uplifting content designed to inspire. The rub, as no one understands better than Trump, is that the social media platforms — and the algorithms that power them — reward bombast and conflict. Amid the collage of newly published saccharine videos posted on Biden’s Facebook page, it’s the Trump-bashing ones that usually have the most views.
But Biden’s campaign is betting that its strategy — which reminds one of Upworthy, the go-to site for feel-good news — has the benefit of being true to Biden and more effective in creating a core of enthusiastic supporters online.
In recent weeks, the campaign has been testing that vision. It posted a compilation of coronavirus acts of kindness with the tagline, “When we’re told to stay apart, we still come together.” It has pushed out posts that attempt to replicate Biden’s trenchant one-on-one moments with voters, such as a livestreamed “digital rope line.” It hosted a “Soul of the Nation Saturday” to mark the one-year anniversary of his announcement for president and a “Biden Brunch,” telling supporters that “Mimosas optional, but encouraged!”
“Empathy is just as good at getting engagement,” Biden’s digital director Rob Flaherty said in an interview. “The suburban Facebook empathy moms that we think about a lot, those folks are just hungry for the contrast between the darkness of Donald Trump and the goodness of Joe Biden.”
Flaherty added that “if we did what the algorithms told us what to do all the time, it would be punching Trump in the face.” While “that will always be part of the toolkit,” a negative-first approach wouldn’t create the stan culture — or avid following — that campaigns need to develop. “The way you win online in 2020 is [by] building enthusiasm and enthusiastic online communities that talk to and bring people in.” The campaign argued the approach is beginning to work. Views across platforms have about doubled since February, rising from 27.4 million to 61.7 million in March and 51.1 million in April.
Biden’s digital push comes very late in the political calendar, after not investing in it heavily in the primary and only as campaigning has moved predominantly online. With people stuck indoors and having more time to look at their screens, a strong digital operation may be more important than ever.
Biden’s campaign, which has several older operatives at the top, didn’t count on “winning the internet” in the primary. Bernie Sanders’ social media team was about the size of Biden’s entire digital operation. Many of Biden’s attempts at clicky content revolved around the former vice president’s affinity for aviator sunglasses and ice cream, and the viral moments Biden did have — meeting a supporter operating the elevator at The New York Times, or his emotional answer about faith and loss at a South Carolina town hall — were unscripted.
Those organic moments helped inspire the “empathy” content strategy, Biden’s advisers say.
Biden’s digital team points out that other Democratic candidates gained traction online without mimicking Trump’s style, including Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. Andrew Yang’s campaign was able to outlast most of his rivals in the Democratic primary in part because of his talents as an internet-first messenger.
Zach Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager, said it’s not a lost cause for Biden. His main advice: Avoid artifice and don’t take yourself too seriously.
“People love when you talk about the elephant in the room,” Graumann said. “One of the elephants in the room is that Joe is older and he makes gaffes sometimes. If I were them, I’d lean into that! That’s what makes him authentic and would likely help them with their virality.”
Content is just the start of Biden’s problems, though. His campaign’s neglect of digital during the primary has led to an enormous shortfall against Trump.
Biden’s digital audience — including followers, subscribers and likes — is skimpy. His now nearly daily livestreams often attract a fraction of the audience of the Trump campaign’s similar video chats, which don’t even feature the president but rather surrogates like Donald Trump Jr. and campaign manager Brad Parscale.
Biden’s most-watched video on YouTube was Barack Obama’s endorsement: It has almost triple the views of the next most popular clip, Biden’s announcement video.
As part of the effort to close that gap, the Biden campaign recently asked its state digital directors to help train volunteers to create content. Some early examples include a geomapped chronology of Biden’s life and a video compilation of praise from Biden’s primary rivals. On this score too, however, the Biden campaign is starting from behind.
The digital deficit is so severe that some Democratic strategists say the campaign should focus as much on appearing on other popular online channels as it does on making its own content. There’s simply not enough time for Biden to scale up his own digital audience, they argue, so better to get on popular podcasts, YouTube channels, and Facebook pages as often as possible and leverage their audiences.
The Biden campaign has made some moves in this direction. Biden and his wife Jill participated in an Instagram Live Thursday: It streamed on Biden’s account as well as soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s, which has 2.2 million followers. The Biden campaign is also working with Occupy Democrats, one of the most popular progressive pages on Facebook with nearly 10 million followers, to share posts on its platform.
So far, however, Biden himself has been sticking mostly to traditional media such as cable and local news, rather than experimenting with the quirky world of podcasters, YouTubers and Instagram influencers.
Josh Miller-Lewis, who oversaw much of Sanders’ digital operation, said that, while the campaign launched regular livestreams in February 2019, there wasn’t strong engagement until at least October. Building a digital audience takes time, Miller-Lewis said.
“It’s not something that happens overnight, especially with a page like Biden’s, ” he said, referring to the relatively little engagement his posts often get and the smaller audience his pages have.
Miller-Lewis also said that, starting around January, the campaign had a full-time staffer dedicated solely to building relationships with and pushing content to other progressive pages and channels.
“The Biden campaign won’t catch the Trump juggernaut, and, yes, progress can be made, but why accept a scoreboard you can’t win,” Jason Goldman, who helped create Twitter and Blogger before becoming chief digital officer in the Obama White House, wrote in a recent Medium post. “You’re going to have to spend more time partnering with new digital channels to make content just for them for this to be successful.”
Goldman added that a more “distributed” strategy might be a more effective way of growing Biden’s own pages than just pouring money into advertising the pages.
“[D]uring the campaign there is greater short term benefit by reaching audiences through other channels,” he told POLITICO in a direct message via Twitter.
As for the content itself, the Biden campaign believes it would be both futile and strategically unwise to try to match Trump.
It would be “out of character with who Joe Biden is,” said Flaherty, the digital director, and “a worse version of what Donald Trump does.
“We have to succeed on our own terms, and so for us strategically it only makes sense to go the other way,” he added. “We’ve got no other choice.”