“We’re Not Selling Hysteria”: Inside the Cold Calculation and Unyielding Optimism of the Biden Brain Trust

By Chris Smith, Vanity Fair, May 7, 2024.

In Wilmington, Joe Biden’s reelection team is tackling stubborn polls, Gaza protests, and third-party threats as it assembles a sophisticated machine to defeat Donald Trump. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: “We could lose the thing that matters most to me,” says campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon, “which is a future for my kids.

 

On a sunny afternoon the views from Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters in downtown Wilmington, Delaware are so clear that if you squint hard you can almost see the White House, 100 miles to the south. The floor plan is open and the windows run just about floor to ceiling, so all 200 staffers share in the sweeping vista.

With the striking exception of probably the most important person on the premises. That Jen O’Malley Dillon sits at the very center of the office is appropriate, symbolically: She is a hub of the reelection effort’s leadership infrastructure. It also means that O’Malley Dillon, officially the campaign chair, is the only person on the team who occupies a dimly lit cubicle. Four years ago, J.O.D., as most everyone in Bidenworld knows her, became the first woman to manage a winning Democratic US presidential campaign, and the first person of any gender in three decades to knock off an incumbent. O’Malley Dillon, 47, has shunned credit and most interviews since. So her nondescript current workspace—blank walls, a tiny desk strewn with papers, a small bookshelf holding a jumble of binders and framed family photos—fits her no-nonsense approach. O’Malley Dillon is ferociously focused on reelecting Biden. Gazing out the window would be a useless distraction. “You have to keep in perspective what’s at stake because every second I waste is a second that we could lose the thing that matters most to me, which is a future for my kids,” she tells me.

Her relentlessness is a good thing, because her candidate is running uphill. For months polls have shown Trump beating Biden nationally, though the race remains tight; more important, thanks to our genius electoral college system, is Trump’s advantage in six of the seven battleground states that are likely to be decisive. Things look equally rugged for Biden when you go deeper than the horse race: A majority of Americans believe economic conditions were better under Trump—despite Biden delivering record-low unemployment numbers—and inflation remains stubbornly high. In March the share of voters strongly disapproving of Biden’s job performance reached a new peak, according to a New York Times survey. Many voters under 35 are angered by the administration’s support for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. And voters of every age group think Biden, 81, is too old to bid for a second term.

The leaders of his reelection team aren’t in denial; they understand they’re facing daunting challenges. The coalition that elected Biden in 2020 has splintered. “We believe that Joe Biden has an important story to sell and has been a historic president,” a senior campaign strategist says. “But that doesn’t mean to say that everyone is going to love him perfectly.” Which may not make for the most stirring political rallying cry. But it underlies the campaign’s methodical drive to raise tens of millions of dollars to assemble a sophisticated operation that will press the fight in both conventional and innovative ways. The plan stretches from boosting Latino turnout in Arizona to winning Michigan—despite the state’s much-hyped “uncommitted” Democratic primary voters—to flipping North Carolina to wooing a meaningful number of Nikki Haley-Republican-primary voters to aggressively educating potential Robert F. Kennedy Jr. voters about his beliefs. For months the campaign has quietly built infrastructure in key states—a foundation that is now allowing it to capitalize on Republican gifts, like the Arizona supreme court’s approval of a near-total ban on abortion. “We know exactly the voters we need to turn out,” a senior campaign operative says, “and we’ve got a plan to do it.”

That confidence flows from data research that assigns probabilities to individual voters. It is also based on a deep roster of human political intelligence, like Quentin Fulks, the principal deputy campaign manager, who was a top aide on Raphael Warnock’s winning Georgia senate reelection campaign over Herschel Walker in 2022, and Julie Chávez Rodriguez, the 46-year-old campaign manager who is a granddaughter of pioneering labor leader Cesar Chavez. “We wanted to make sure we had strong campaign experience, but also really strong lived experience for the communities and voters that we want to reach. So it’s not by default that it’s myself and Quentin running this campaign. That was extremely intentional,” Rodriguez says. “And being able to prioritize our base targets, it’s not the way that most presidentials have been run. They don’t usually invest in doing outreach to communities of color early.”

Yet much of the work of piecing together the strategy and the machinery has occurred in Wilmington, outside the national media spotlight, which has contributed to a perception among many Democrats that the Biden campaign is eerily, delusionally calm. “What scares me to death is they think they’ve proven everyone wrong every time,” a senior Democratic insider says. “They have this outward posture of, ‘We came from nowhere in the 2020 primary, we’re the only ones who beat Trump in the general, so trust us.’ But remember, in the fall of 2020, they sent Biden to Ohio and Kamala Harris to Texas where they had no chance, when they could have been in Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. So let’s not get on too high of a horse.”

Maybe so—though Biden visited and won those four key states four years ago. And up close, it’s clear no one is resting on their horses, or their laurels. The 2024 campaign’s activities are intense and far-reaching, permeated by a deep sense of urgency. “I can certainly feel the weight of what we’re doing,” says Dan Kanninen, who leads the battleground-state effort. “But to be in it gives a measure of purpose that is different than just allowing your anxieties to take you somewhere else.” Biden’s lieutenants have forceful, detailed, logical pushbacks to every possible criticism of the campaign. There’s only one part of the reelection operation that feels unnerving: so much of the victory calculus hinges on voters, once they’ve heard the relevant facts, behaving rationally. That worry is compounded by the stakes. “If we lose this election,” a national Democratic strategist says, “we might not have another one.”

Rob Flaherty rates a private corner office. One of its walls is decorated with images of Biden’s trademark aviator sunglasses in a repeating pattern of green, blue, black, and orange. The opposite wall is dominated by a banner, its black background contrasting with large white letters reading “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.”

Flaherty had better know something. His title, deputy campaign manager, doesn’t even hint at the magnitude of his responsibilities. The 32-year-old oversees two crucial aspects of Biden’s campaign: digital strategy and relational organizing. The first role means not simply figuring out how to target a multi-million-dollar pro-Biden online ad campaign, but trying to fight off a fire hose of right-wing attacks and disinformation. Flaherty did this craftily for Biden during the 2020 campaign, particularly in steering an effort to identify “market moving” issues—separating things that had the potential to actually influence voters, like concerns about Biden’s mental fitness, from mere noise, like the Republican obsession with Hunter Biden. In some respects—most notably Gaza and inflation—there are new substantive challenges this time. One major concern hasn’t changed: Biden’s advanced age. “The way you combat the age issue,” Flaherty says, “is, one, he gets out there and addresses it. What you see him doing in his paid [media] right now. And it’s by fighting on the issues that people care about. If we address the fact that they want to see him go and fight for them, the issue goes away pretty quick.”

Yet the online landscape has changed dramatically in four years, with media consumers fractured into ever-more-personalized content silos, many of them hardened against campaign messaging, a shift that seems to benefit Trump. “Voters who do not want to hear about politics never have to,” Flaherty says. “People who are not hearing about politics, they are not trusting of politicians, they’re not trusting the media. So it becomes incumbent on the campaign to think about, how do we reach those people where they are? You have to diversify the way you do paid media, right? You can’t just spend 70% on linear broadcast television and hope you’re going to reach folks.”

One of Flaherty’s priorities is reaching tuned-out potential voters. “The voters who we think are pretty much the difference makers in this election, these voters, you have to persuade them to participate,” he says. “This is going to be a back-loaded election for when people start to pay attention. They are largely a younger, more diverse set of people who voted for us last time, who lean Democrat. They hate Trump. They are really hard to reach. And there’s just more of those this time.” A related task is neutralizing the deluge of Republican disinformation. “At the close of any campaign, I know my candidate is in trouble if key parts of the electorate are awash in more negative than positive information about my candidate,” a top Democratic strategist says. “And right now, particularly younger voters of color on social media, they’re hearing more negative than positive information about Joe Biden. How do they turn that?”

Massive spending is part of the answer. But the campaign believes the cash must be spread on a wider array of formats than ever before and in creative ways. So when Biden visited a North Carolina home in March, Flaherty’s team enlisted the family’s 13-year-old son to post a video on TikTok, generating more than five million views across a range of sites, the kind of reach a conventional rally doesn’t produce. The White House has bolstered the president’s online presence by encouraging the work of independent liberal influencers, including Aaron Rupar and Ron Filipkowski, who have driven news cycles by circulating video clips of Trump’s stumbles and incendiary comments. Biden’s team is also investing heavily in first-person testimonial ads from ordinary Americans. “Having elected officials give speeches or be on Sunday talk shows is important,” says Roger Lau, who was Elizabeth Warren’s campaign manager in 2020 and who now works closely with the Biden effort as deputy executive director of the Democratic National Committee. “But finding that nurse in Nevada who can talk about why capping the cost of insulin at 35 bucks a month is important to their families because Filipinos have a much higher rate of type two diabetes than other communities—that kind of video, digital, and social content, it just cuts through in a totally different way.”

Flaherty comes across as ebullient and exhausted, which is understandable given that he’s crafting in-real-life organizing plans at the same time he’s trying to counteract the Laura Loomers of the world online. His digital turf overlaps with his more experimental turf, relational organizing. “You have to get people to share content through their friends and family, trusted messengers,” Flaherty says. “This is important because of what I think is the second trend that is different from ’20. In 2022, half of the content shared on Instagram was in private. So if you’re running a digital strategy that is aimed just at reaching people in their feeds, you’re missing where a lot of conversation on the internet is happening.”

Getting trusted friends to share political content, both digitally and face-to-face, could be extremely valuable. It is also difficult. Last fall, the Biden campaign launched pilot relational organizing programs in Arizona and Wisconsin, battleground states that went for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 and are up for grabs again. The results of a pilot effort in North Milwaukee are one reason for optimism that the campaign can reach middle-class Black voters, whom polls have shown drifting to Trump. A veteran Democratic strategist is more skeptical. “It makes sense in theory,” he says. “The problem is it’s all anecdotal. We don’t know enough yet to say it works. I mean, you have an entire voting population that gets their news from TikTok, right? Which is why most campaigns now, we just push all the buttons. We pay for more door-to-door canvassing, we pay more for texting, we pay more for phone banks, we pay more for digital. But no one—not Republicans, not Democrats—is confident anymore on what messaging works.”

There’s no Biden campaign signage on the office building exterior—a choice both sensible and depressing during this polarized, potentially violent election season. Inside, conversations are low volume, the vibe all-business; the one whimsical touch is conference rooms named for national parks, which is either a healthy reminder or a cruel taunt that there’s a world outside of the campaign. Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s winning 2012 reelection bid (with O’Malley Dillon as a top aide), says the low-key headquarters location, at a distance from the political and media din of Washington, was a wise move. “The hardest thing is the pressure. Every single day, people are asking them about polls that don’t have them winning,” Messina says. “And something I think we did well in Obamaland was stay focused and keep our heads down and build the beast. That’s exactly what they’re doing, and doing really well. They’re raising a great amount of money. They are starting to be really active on social media. They’re staffing up in the battleground states. And they understand exactly what the narrative they need is.”

As Flaherty was talking web algorithms, an old-school press release was going out from another office, taunting “Broke Don” Trump for trailing the president nearly four-to-one in cash on hand and for “hiding at his country club,” while Biden crisscrosses the nation. The tone is more barbed, but the theme is one you hear again and again from Biden’s top staff: We are constructing the kind of campaign apparatus that will deliver in November, while Trump isn’t.

In March alone, the campaign says, it launched a $30 million, six-week paid media campaign; deployed 20,000 volunteers who sent more than 2 million texts and made more than 385,000 calls; and opened 100 new offices. “We’ve opened up our Maryvale, Arizona, office, in the heart of the Latino community,” Rodriguez says. “In Nevada, we have four offices. Trump doesn’t even have one office open in the state.” “They’ll try to buy some sort of field operation at the very end,” Kanninen, 45, says. “That’s never very effective. And so I want to press the advantage that we have now.” “On the metrics that matter most right now,” says Michael Tyler, Biden’s 37-year-old campaign communications director, “your ability to raise the resources, to build the infrastructure that’s going to help decide the path to 270, this campaign is on its front foot relative to him.”

All of which is correct. It is also true that Democrats have won the bulk of recent contests, from the 2022 midterms to a March special election for a state house seat in deep-red Alabama. There are signs that the campaign’s efforts are gaining traction: Since March 1, at least 24 national polls have shown Biden beating Trump, and a recent Bloomberg poll showed an increase in swing-state voters saying the economy is on the right track. And as Trump is stuck in a New York courtroom defending himself against charges of hiding payments to Stormy Daniels, Biden has been out on the campaign trail.

The pattern would be more reassuring, though, if it were up against someone other than Trump, for whom the normal rules of political gravity never seem to apply. As would another article of faith inside the Biden campaign: that once Democratic and undecided voters hear about all the great stuff the president has done for them in his first term, and they truly understand his superiority compared to Trump, of course they’ll come around to Biden’s side. “Not a lot of people have a full understanding of all that he and the vice president have been able to deliver,” Rodriguez says. “Reminding people of what he’s done,” a campaign operative says, “and what the contrast will be moving forward is just a key part of the story that you need to tell to every single demographic, young people in particular.” A Democratic strategist who led a high-profile, winning 2022 midterm campaign scoffs. “I think Biden has totally lost young people, like, aggressively,” the strategist says. “No one I knew under 30 was excited about Biden before October 7, and now all the people on the left are just gone. Maybe some will come back when the choice between him and Trump is clear. But I’ve seen enough focus groups in purple states. People are just so unenthusiastic.”

Yet the younger voter dynamic is highly complicated, and there are indications that Biden’s early and continuous outreach may be having an impact. A recent Harvard poll showed the president with a 19-point lead over Trump among likely voters age 30 and under; other data indicates that dismay over the Israel-Gaza war has had minimal impact. That’s the relatively good news. The downsides are that Biden benefitted from record youth turnout in 2020, something that is unlikely to be duplicated this November, and that Biden was shedding younger voters even before the Israel-Hamas war. The president’s campaign is banking on the contrast with Trump to fill some of the gap. It also believes that parochial concerns outrank Gaza for most younger voters. “People say, ‘They have to fall in love or they won’t show up.’ That’s actually not true,” a second Biden campaign strategist says. “They’re economic voters, but they’re also strategic voters.” Perhaps they’ll notice that lately Biden has been canceling billions in student debt. “Virginia most recently was young voters,” Rodriguez says, referencing last fall’s Democratic sweep of the state’s legislative races. “They are showing up. They know what’s at stake. Abortion—a huge issue for our young voters. If this is something that can be taken away, what else can be?”

While Biden’s Gaza-fueled problems with younger voters have likely been overstated, the conventional wisdom has been understating the damage the war could cause the president with swing voters—and not because of their allegiances to Israel or Palestine. The conflict itself fueled a sense that the world remains volatile, though it was still happening at a distance, literally and politically. Now campus skirmishes have made the mess domestic, and the president’s brand is all about delivering calm. “Biden has got to be seen as the reasonable guy who gets shit done, where Trump is a madman,” a top Democratic strategist says. “You can’t do that when you’ve got chaos on the southern border or chaos on campuses.”

The Biden administration has put together a compelling record in some big-picture ways, including the revival of the economy, the defense of Ukraine, and advances in the battle against climate change. The campaign’s challenge is to translate the president’s record into gains that voters recognize in their everyday lives. “If we’re able to frame the president’s accomplishments in the face of Republican extremist obstructionism,” Tyler says, “you actually have a fantastic story to tell. I mean, I’ll talk about Black folks, for example, right? Since before the pandemic, Black wealth is up 60%, highest rate of small business growth for Black-owned businesses in a generation, cutting Black child poverty in half through the child tax credit before MAGA Republicans ripped it away, which Joe Biden is going to bring back in a second term to make permanent.”

There are also large vulnerabilities in Biden’s first-term record: the suffocatingly high price of housing and the immigration crisis, to pick two. But presidential elections are weird, unique animals that more often turn on personality than on policy, on what Americans are feeling they need in the White House as much as what might objectively be best for the country. Mood is a powerful force in national elections, and the Biden campaign has identified an intriguing, and ominous, headwind. “We don’t like to talk about the fact that COVID still has an impact,” a senior strategist says. “It’s easy to kind of be nostalgic for a time before COVID, to remember, ‘Oh, well, the economy was better, or I felt like prices were better.’ And you don’t hear Trump every day. People are not viscerally feeling how they felt when he was a leader, because he’s been silent for lots of reasons. So we have a lot of work to do. Now, it just so happens that Trump says such crazy stuff all the time that we have ample opportunity.” Everyone at Biden HQ is well aware of the possible consequences, both for the country and for themselves, of Trump winning and turning the craziness into policy. “The people behind him are very well organized,” a Biden campaign operative says. “It can feel like an abstraction, but actually there are people I know, and myself, who would be targets.”

Four years ago, O’Malley Dillon was the new kid in Biden’s small inner circle, where relationships are measured in decades. She had worked her way up the Democratic campaign ranks, from answering phones for a Massachusetts state attorney general candidate to two stints as a field operative with John Edwards’s presidential runs to battleground-states director for Barack Obama’s 2008 win to deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 reelection. When Biden’s 2020 Democratic primary campaign was flagging, a leadership shake-up elevated Anita Dunn to top strategist, and Dunn brought in O’Malley Dillon as campaign manager. Biden’s prospects improved. “Without Jen, we are all sitting here in a second Trump administration,” says Emma Brown, who ran Arizona for the Biden 2020 campaign and was the strategist for Mark Kelly’s victorious senate run in Arizona.

O’Malley Dillon kept working for Biden as White House deputy chief of staff while raising twin daughters and a younger son with her husband, Patrick. “Being on campaigns is like everything I’ve known my whole life. It is what I believe in,” she says, her working-class Boston roots shaping the sound of her vowels. “So being back here, which I never really imagined I would do again, I just love what I’m doing. The downside is, my kids aren’t here, so I’m going to head back at 8:00 tonight so I can catch my son before he goes to school in the morning, and then I’ll be back here on Saturday.”

The leadership team includes, among others, Rodriguez and two longtime Biden insiders: Dunn, who remains at the White House as senior adviser to the president, and chief strategist Mike Donilon, who has also shifted from the West Wing to Wilmington. “Anita’s superpower is that she’s fearless when it comes to pushing out messages,” says Jen Psaki, who was Biden’s White House spokesperson before joining MSNBC. “Donilon is a part of the president’s brain. Jen [O’Malley Dillon] grew up with a notepad and a pen at a foldout table in campaigns across the country. She knows what it takes,” Psaki adds.

The reelection strategy Biden’s top advisors drew up last year outsourced a large amount of campaign duties to the Democratic National Committee; O’Malley Dillon had a large hand in choosing the DNC’s assignments. “Every single day here is about making sure the infrastructure is built so fundraisers, organizers, and candidates have what they need to talk to voters,” says Lau, the DNC official. As the campaign took shape Dunn was in touch with independent groups like American Bridge 21st Century, which is expected to collectively raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to back Democrats. “There’s 8 or 10% of voters available that may go one way or another,” says Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge. “Abortion, freedom, and democracy have been greater than whatever bullshit the GOP wants to throw out there.”

The in-house Biden campaign plan called for a gradual rollout at the start of 2024, a ramp-up through the spring and summer–it already has more than 300 full-time staff working in key states–while marshaling money and energy for a major push after Labor Day. The campaign believes that the large bloc of disenchanted and disengaged voters means the race won’t be decided until even later than usual; it also believes that one fundamental task isn’t to persuade people to vote for Biden but to persuade people to vote at all. The president’s modest performance skills don’t necessarily help that cause. “You felt inspired just walking through the door every morning at Obama headquarters,” a senior Democratic operative who has worked for both Obama and Biden says. “The campaign now, you know your candidate is not going to light the room on fire. They don’t feel like they’re winning, but they don’t feel like they’re losing.”

The campaign has made adjustments while sticking to its core plan through tragic surprises, like the war in Gaza, and through a deluge of bad public polls, even as influential Democrats, up to and including Obama, expressed angst that Biden was in trouble and his campaign was not moving fast enough. “This guy [Trump] is a monster, and he’s fighting for his life. And you got to fight with that same kind of purpose. I told them they can’t operate on the timetable of a regular campaign,” the Reverend Al Sharpton says.“But they are beginning to do what they need to do to energize the base—Black voters, brown voters, young voters.” (A campaign operative respectfully pushes back, pointing to robust spending in communities of color since fall 2023.) Rebecca Pearcey, who was the political director for Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 Democratic primary campaign, points to below-the-radar but key hires. “People like Chelsey Wininger, who isn’t a household name but who will make a difference for Biden in Nevada,” she says. “They’re building the campaign the right way.”

The campaign had been plenty busy for months before O’Malley Dillon arrived full-time in January, but her presence adrenalized the atmosphere. Colleagues from prior campaigns describe her as both inspiring (“People are incredibly loyal to her,” a longtime associate says) and intimidating (“Jen is a knife fighter,” the senior Democratic operative says), and when she emerges from her Wilmington office, Biden staffers sit up straighter at their desks. One overriding Biden campaign belief is that the general public, and especially the voters who are up for grabs, have real lives and won’t tune in to the election before Labor Day. “A lot of people aren’t like us. They’re not weird and they don’t want to pay attention to this stuff this early,” the senior strategist says. A second fundamental piece of the campaign’s framework is that simply attacking Trump, no matter how justified or how emotionally satisfying it might be, won’t be electorally effective. “There are a lot of layers of who we’re trying to talk to,” the strategist continues. “When we are doing a lot of our work, we are trying to make sure that the narrative is very clear that there is a real threat. I mean, this guy: January 6th, dictator on day one, ingest bleach. But we’re not selling hysteria. We can’t over torque this.” O’Malley Dillon puts a finer point on the idea: “We cannot be a campaign that just trashes Trump and doesn’t say anything about who President Biden is. We can’t just be one part of the choice. We have to be both parts.”

Four years ago less than 45,000 votes—distributed unevenly across three battleground states—gave the presidency to Biden. His team expects the margins to be thin again. “When we’re dealing with an election that’s going to be won or lost on the margins in these states, that’s when field matters, right?” Rodriguez says. “That’s when our historic fundraising matters. That’s when having the right leadership within a state that knows the ins and outs of the state and the different pockets of communities and voters we need to pull from matters.”

It is also where third-party candidates become dangerous. “We are not going to sit idly by and let RFK pretend like he is something he is not,” the senior strategist says. “But we are not going to over-index on a choice we think is a false choice to some extent.” That’s why the president’s campaign and its surrogates are leaning hard on the message that the real choice is between Trump and Biden, and that pulling the lever for Jill Stein, Cornel West, or RFK Jr. won’t merely be a wasted protest vote. Trump’s support appears to have a ceiling of about 47%. Third-party votes, though, could hold Biden down to around 45%. Biden’s campaign thinks this argument gives them an opportunity with Nikki Haley’s Republican primary voters, from Wisconsin to Michigan to North Carolina. “I truly believe,” O’Malley Dillon says, “if you are a moderate, even a moderate Republican woman in suburban Pennsylvania, you are not going to see what’s happened with choice and IVF and choose to vote third party with all we have at stake.”

Democrats scored in the midterms by emphasizing reproductive rights and the economy, and Biden’s campaign will return to those themes—plus the preservation of democracy—as the race heats up this fall. But its appeals will necessarily be “multivariate,” in the words of one operative. “Michigan’s a good example,” Kanninen says. “We certainly have to talk to voters in Detroit. We have to also persuade folks in rural Michigan to be with us. We have to work on suburban voters and press the advantage we’ve created over the years under Trump, as [Republicans] have gotten more and more extreme. We have to keep those white, noncollege union voters in a good place and drive that.”

There are some positive signs: consumer confidence is increasing, and Biden has been narrowing Trump’s lead in battleground states. A ceasefire in Gaza by November would be helpful, but no one is counting on it. Other wildcards, from Trump’s trials to natural disasters, will play out unpredictably. O’Malley Dillon, down in her Wilmington bunker, is gearing up to deploy the things she can control—money, ground troops, a digital-messaging offensive. The stakes, she knows, are enormous. The campaign’s goals, though, are coolly realistic: motivate enough voters to merely like Biden and combine them with enough who fear Trump. “I’m steady,” she says, “and I play the long game.” Steadiness beat chaos in 2020. Doing it a second time will be even harder.

 Image Credits: Getty Images, Chavez Rodriguez

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