Biden's digital game outmatched by Trump as US presidential campaign goes virtual

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – US President Donald Trump’s campaign boasts it needed just 24 hours to switch into virtual mode after coronavirus lockdowns ended his signature, high-energy rallies. For Mr Joe Biden, who thrives on the personal connection of retail politics, the transition is taking much longer.

Mr Trump’s operation dominates the digital space in no small part thanks to the presidential bully pulpit and his massive Twitter presence. But Mr Biden, a month after the pandemic forced him off the trail, has yet to beef up his digital team and is still working to expand his outreach to quarantined voters.

Unlike rivals like Ms Elizabeth Warren or Mr Bernie Sanders, who relied on innovative technology to reach supporters during the Democratic primary season, Mr Biden ran a traditional campaign leveraging on his name recognition, political contacts and skills in retail politics. As of last week, Mr Biden has hired no new staff with expertise in digital politics, the campaign said, instead relying on existing aides.

Mr Biden’s digital director, Mr Rob Flaherty, acknowledged that the campaign has to catch up.

“This month has given us a good opportunity to figure out where there are needs and where we need to fill in holes,” Mr Flaherty said in an interview. “We’re going to grow in time but for now we’re drinking from the fire hose but still punching way above weights.”

The Biden camp is just now beginning to ramp up its digital efforts, with some help from former rivals. He’s held virtual town halls, hosting family-oriented YouTube users and started an interactive broadcast with coronavirus frontline workers. Mr Biden’s video content has reached 52 million viewers over the past month, the campaign says.

“We have some opportunity of undivided attention from screens to reach people exactly where they’re at, which is on their phones,” said Ms Carla Aronsohn, who was Mr Sanders’ lead mobile strategist in 2016 and then founded Cultivate Strategies, a progressive digital agency. “They need to invest in hiring some of the most brilliant technical and digital minds onto their campaign.”

Beginning in March, the campaigns were forced to find alternatives to crowded events and rope lines as social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders were imposed around the country.

Mr Trump, harnessing the power of incumbency and without the distraction of a primary challenger, got right to it. He launched virtual rallies, some with popular surrogates like Mr Donald Trump Jr. Other virtual events cater to specific constituencies, like Women for Trump, Black Voices for Trump and Latinos for Trump. The groups have their own accounts across social media channels. By the end of April, the campaign plans to hold about 90 of these coalition specific events to get access to new volunteers, donors and data.

Yet Mr Biden still leads Mr Trump in national polling, with the former vice-president polling five points ahead of Mr Trump on average, according to Real Clear Politics.

Mr Biden’s virtual campaign is rockier. His campaign website directs volunteers to help him win the nomination, which he all but sewed up last week when Mr Sanders, his one remaining challenger, dropped out.

Overall, Mr Biden has spent less than his rivals on the kinds of software and data services that allow a campaign to identify supporters and connect with them virtually. Through the end of February, Federal Election Commission records show, he spent US$1.2 million (S$1.7 million). In the same time-frame, Mr Trump spent US$2.9 million.

On social media, Biden’s footprint is dwarfed by Mr Trump’s.

Mr Biden has 4.9 million followers on Twitter, compared to Mr Trump’s 77 million and even Sanders’s 11.8 million. The Team Trump Twitter account, his campaign’s voice on the platform, has 1.6 million followers, while Team Joe has about 50,000.

On Instagram, Mr Biden trails Trump by 17 million followers while on Facebook, Mr Trump has garnered 24 million likes more than Mr Biden.

Trump campaign deputy press secretary Ken Farnaso said the organisation’s significant advantage was “because of our early and ongoing investment in data and technological infrastructure that began in 2015,” allowing the campaign to promptly hold virtual events, online training and register voters online. Its volunteers have made 17 million voter contacts since March 13.

Mr Biden’s campaign says it’s upped its digital game since Mr Sanders ended his campaign, and is now getting help from his former rivals. Mr Sanders talked up Mr Biden during an Instagram live stream with pop singer Cardi B, while Ms Warren asked singer Miley Cyrus’ followers on the platform to give his campaign US$5; both performers have tens of millions of followers.

Mr Pete Buttigieg offered his support on local television stations in Michigan, Ohio and New Hampshire, while former president Barack Obama’s video endorsement of his former running mate was viewed one million times in the first 40 minutes alone, according to Twitter.

One outfit trying to convince Mr Biden to use their services is Hawkfish, which ran Mr Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, according to the Intercept. The data company, which does not have a track record in politics other than the Bloomberg campaign, would do voter targeting, fundraising, persuasion, and “get out the vote” efforts.

(Mr Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. Mr Bloomberg also sought the Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out on March 4 and endorsed Mr Biden.)

Mr Biden’s digital race to the White House will be a group effort, Mr Flaherty said. “It’s all about going everywhere, and talking to people in places where they may not expect to hear from you,” he said. “Making sure that the V-P gets off of his own channel and on to others is critically important in leveraging key people with followings and influences as places to go, whether political or celebrities.”

But some of Mr Biden’s own tools need work. Smartphone apps are the low-hanging fruit of digital engagement, but Team Joe, the campaign’s app, has frustrated users who want to connect with the campaign, especially during quarantine.

“I’m not sure how much correlation there is between having a slick app and electoral success,” said Mr Jim Stoltzfus, 40, a system administrator from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who downloaded the app to find nearby events and connect with fellow Biden supporters.

“But the lack of activity on the app worries me.”

Some reviews on Apple’s App Store pages were harsher, with one Biden supporter calling it confusing and another writing, “His digital game is in the Stone Age.”

Users complained about everything from the inability to use the app to donate to the campaign to its lack of opportunities to engage with other supporters and volunteers.

Mr Trump’s app, by contrast, feeds his followers his latest tweets and promotes virtual events hosted by his surrogates. The Team Joe app has been downloaded fewer than 5,000 times on Google’s Android store, while Mr Trump’s has been downloaded somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 times. Apple doesn’t publish information on downloads from its app store.

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