The Battle for the Soul of Joe Biden’s Digital Campaign

Democratic digital staff just conducted an intervention aimed at the Biden campaign, filtered through the words of Politico’s Alex Thompson. In a piece published on Tuesday, Thompson quotes a half-dozen experienced digital campaign staffers with a single message for the presumptive Democratic nominee: don’t outsource your digital operation to Hawkfish, the firm Mike Bloomberg created to run digital media for his presidential bid.

Why such a strong reaction? In part, it derives from the long history of techies who swoop in from outside the community of digital politics practitioners and think they know how to do campaign technology better than those who do it for a living.

“Every cycle there’s a new Silicon Valley savior that’s going to come in and save the day. And every single cycle it doesn’t pan out,” Caitlin Mitchell, the chief mobilization director for the Warren campaign, wrote on Twitter after The Intercept reported that the Biden team was considering Hawkfish. “Somehow Dems never seem to learn the lesson. I sure hope we don’t let 2020 be another chapter in the perennial tale of us getting suckered.”

Ouch! I’ve seen the Valley mindset in practice personally, once being told smugly by tech entrepreneurs who’d never worked a day for a candidate or cause that political campaigning was “ripe for disruption” (when you hear that phrase, run.) Their company of course had no experience or new ideas to add to the mix, only the arrogance that a team of Real Technologists would figure it all out in no time. As far as I can tell, they disappeared without ever contributing anything to the ever-growing body of digital political tools and tactics, almost all developed by people who’ve worked in this field for years.

The thing is, political technology almost always develops incrementally, with new features driven by the needs of campaigns using the tools on the ground. A gifted amateur can sometimes come along and spot an opportunity the pros have overlooked, as you could argue Brad Parscale did when he embraced automated, mass Facebook outreach in 2016, but more often they have to learn the hard way that most wheels don’t need reinventing.

Some in the Politico piece note that hiring Hawkfish could effectively mean that the Democratic Party would turn its data infrastructure over to Michael Bloomberg, not an idea popular among activists. But the most common concerns were practical:

Advocates of the in-house approach argue that it would make the campaign more nimble, save money, and generate more authentic content. They add that they believe Biden campaign’s senior leadership is being lured by grandiose promises and warn that the campaign would be turning over its most critical tool to a firm with little political experience that’s backed by a man who was not a Democrat for most of his life.

Also note this gem:

One outside Democratic operative who has been in touch with Biden’s team said that the fight inside the campaign has taken on a generational dimension, with older officials more receptive to Hawkfish’s pitches than younger, digitally native staffers.

“The idea that Hawkfish is a silver bullet for anybody is pretty ridiculous on its face,” said the operative. “The reason it may feel that way to some nondigital people on the Biden campaign is that it seems easy, it’s a one-stop shop.”

If you’ve read my digital campaigning guide, you know how I feel about the question. From the 2019 edition:

So who should do the work, campaign staff or consultants? I don’t know too many experienced digital campaigners who would argue that a campaign should outsource its entire online operation if it has a choice — unless the people saying it are consultants and their own bread and butter depends on it. The internet has become such a central part of how we communicate with each other that it’s pretty much essential to have the online staff fully integrated into a campaign….

Where should the digital staff “live” inside a campaign? If you could ask the Obama operation, the most successful internet political machine to date, they’d say that the online team should be at the leadership table and equal with field, fundraising, communications, IT, etc — it should be an entity of its own, not stuck under the tech director and hidden in a basement somewhere. At the same time, digital staff should also be integrated with the rest of the campaign, working closely with their peers on other teams. Separate, but integrated!

For an example of why, I once heard an online advertising consultant for a top-level 2008 Republican presidential campaign talk about how he could see trends in the political environment days in advance by looking at how different Google ad variants performed. But because he was functionally off in a silo and not interacting regularly with the rest of the staff, they could rarely take advantage of the trends he saw.

Sure, a campaign might outsource specific pieces of its digital outreach, but they should always be under the overall control of an in-house digital team. Staff should call the shots, not consultants, and the digital team leaders should sit at the big table.

How serious a deal is this? I got a sinking feeling when I read the Politico headline, if that tells you anything. I don’t know that hiring Hawkfish would be fatal to Biden’s campaign, but it sure looks like an unforced error from here. Putting a presidential campaign’s most important outreach channel in the hands of people who’ve never worked politics before this year and who just failed to elect your best-funded rival? Bad idea, Biden.

cpd

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