Biden’s Small Campaign Troubles Democrats, But May Signal A Strengthened Party
While some Democrats are calling Biden's team a ‘phantom campaign operation,’ others argue they can rely on a more active party infrastructure.
President Joe Biden’s campaign isn't ramping up fast enough, Democratic operatives and donors across the party told The Messenger, airing fears that the operation is not fully prepared for the fight that lies ahead.
After Biden formally launched his 2024 campaign in late April, many Democrats held their tongues about the operation's pace. But weeks into the reelection effort, the concerns have grown, according to more than 20 Democratic operatives, lawmakers, aides, and donors, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about the Biden campaign.
The campaign’s fundraising is off to a slow start, top donors say, causing some to worry about lackluster numbers when their first fundraising report is due at the end of June. The current campaign structure is small, with only a handful of hired staffers working out of the Democratic National Committee building in Washington, D.C. And Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s top White House aide-turned-campaign manager who officially began her job last week, is already facing questions from inside the party about how empowered she will be in the broader Biden orbit.
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The Biden reelection feels like a phantom campaign operation at the moment. They obviously have very smart people managing this and I am sure they will ramp it up when and how it makes sense. But a handful of aides out of the DNC doesn’t feel commensurate with the task ahead.
A former Obama campaign aide
Not all Democrats agree, however. They argue the sluggish start is a function of the president’s role as a party builder and a Democratic Party infrastructure that has grown into a far healthier place compared to 2012, the last time a Democratic president sought reelection. Their reasoning: The slow-building Biden campaign can rely on the national committee and state parties as it kicks into high gear.
“I think, in some ways, they’re ahead (of the Obama campaign) because they have a functioning DNC,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager in 2012.
That thinking doesn’t quell the concerns of some donors, though.
“Right now, it’s a sh--storm,” said one major Democratic donor, speaking about the overall start to the campaign and the lack of fundraising. “It really is.”
The donor, who was actively involved in previous election cycles, said Barack Obama's 2012 campaign was much further ahead at this time: “It’s a tale of two cities, the best of times and the worst of times.”
‘A dramatically better, stronger position’
To other Democrats, the small size of the emergent Biden campaign is less of a concern as it is validation that it can depend on the broader party infrastructure, which is in a far better position than it was in either 2012 or 2016. Several Democrats argued that strength means the party can help supplement areas where the campaign may be deficient, allowing the Biden operation time to staff up.
It is now almost lore in Democratic circles that the DNC around the 2016 campaign was rife with dysfunction – with many laying the blame at Obama’s feet for being a subpar party builder. Hillary Clinton, in the wake of her stunning loss to Donald Trump, partly blamed the committee for her loss, saying it was “bankrupt,” “on the verge of insolvency,” and had data that was “poor, non-existent and wrong.”
While Obama launched his reelection campaign at roughly the same point in 2011 that Biden did in 2023, Messina had left his role in the White House in January of that year and began the process of building a sprawling campaign in Chicago.
Messina told The Messenger that while the 2012 campaign timeline is “different,” it was primarily because the 2010 midterms were disastrous for Democrats, while the 2022 midterms were a surprising success for the party.
People were f---ing furious. And then we sort of had to start doing all the meetings with all the donors and kind of rebuilding. They're going to kind of run more of a Rose Garden strategy than we were gonna run. … Our theory was we were just going to be very separate from the White House. … Biden has gotten all of this historic stuff done and voters don't yet know it. And so a lot of what they have to do this year is through the White House.
Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager
Tom Perez, Obama’s former Labor Secretary, took over the DNC after the 2016 election and set out to build a stronger party structure by raising considerable money, investing in data, and strengthening relationships with state parties. After the 2020 campaign, Biden named Jaime Harrison, former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, as Perez’s successor.
“We are in just a dramatically better, stronger position than 2011 or any incumbent reelection,” said a senior DNC official.
The official pointed to the DNC spending tens of millions of dollars to acquire cell phone numbers and other data sets that help locate voters, nearly tripling the size of its fundraising list since the 2016 election, and building an engineering team that is about to unveil a new voter engagement program that unites the party’s different forms of organizing and content generation into one portal.
“I am not here to convince you that the race car is built,” the official said, “but the chassis is damn near immaculate.”
Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the Biden campaign also downplayed the concerns.
“The pundits and beltway media have always underestimated Joe Biden, and he’s proven the doubters wrong every time,” Munoz said. “We will never take any vote for granted, and we will never be complacent, and we will always remember that the Twitterverse and political echo chamber is not reflective of the American electorate.”
‘He doesn’t rush to make decisions’
Biden was also criticized for his late entrance into the 2020 campaign and what some perceived to be a slow-moving campaign compared to many of his Democratic rivals.
“Some of it is just a function of Joe Biden. He doesn’t rush to make decisions on this stuff and that’s being charitable,” said one Biden ally who was involved in the 2020 campaign. Even still, the ally added, “There’s no way to spin the fact that they’re way behind where Obama was at this point.”
After achieving his decades-long goal of winning the presidency, the 2020 campaign likely further cemented Biden’s deliberative habits. But the stakes of a reelection bid, where Biden is the only Democrat the party is rallying around, is dramatically different from a race where Biden, while a frontrunner, was one of a bevy of candidates.
Former Obama aides also noted that the organizing structure around the two Democratic incumbents is vastly different. Where Obama had a well-funded and functional grassroots organization called Obama for America at his disposal, Biden now has a partner in the DNC.
The Biden team has something different, which is a much stronger, more solidified party with strong fundraising, strong infrastructure, strong connectivity to the states, and really good state leadership. The stuff that really matters from an infrastructure standpoint is really better.
Dan Kanninen, a former Obama aide who held multiple roles during the 2012 campaign
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