Joe Biden’s campaign leadership is clashing over the future of its digital operation — a rift that comes as campaigning has moved largely online and as Biden faces a yawning deficit against President Donald Trump’s massive digital operation.
The disagreement among Biden’s top advisers centers on whether to hire most of its digital team internally or to rely on the firm Hawkfish, which is backed financially by billionaire Mike Bloomberg and ran the digital operation for his presidential campaign.
The outcome of the internal battle will have far-reaching consequences for November as the coronavirus pandemic has made traditional campaigning — rallies with crowds and get-out-the-vote efforts like door knocking — all but impossible, while pushing digital campaigning to the forefront.
Trump’s digital presence is significantly larger than Biden’s on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, a disadvantage that has made the discussions even more urgent. The Biden digital operation, which includes roughly 25 people, is also less than a quarter the size of the Trump campaign’s 100 person-plus team. Hillary Clinton’s digital operation was just less than 100 at this point in 2016, according to three Clinton digital staffers.
The internal argument over Hawkfish — detailed by 10 Democratic officials, including several who have spoken with the campaign — has stalled Biden’s hiring just as his new campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, settles into her role. Since the coronavirus shutdown began last month, the campaign has not added any digital staffers.
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.”
Advocates for Hawkfish argue that instead of spending weeks or potentially months building an in-house team, the campaign could plug and play the firm now. They say it is flush with Bloomberg’s cash and boasts an impressive roster of Silicon Valley talent.
In short, Hawkfish’s defenders say, it offers the best chance to catch Trump.
One Democratic digital strategist who met with Hawkfish leaders during Bloomberg’s presidential campaign came away surprised. “I was ready for Silicon Valley” arrogance, the strategist said. But “I found them to be smart and in it for the right reasons, so you can’t hate them that much.”
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.
Or as one Democratic digital strategist outside the campaign, referring to Bloomberg’s performance in the primary, put it: “They just spent a billion dollars to win Guam.” (Bloomberg’s sole victory was actually in American Samoa).
“It would be a colossal mistake,” said Shelby Cole, the digital director for Kamala Harris’ presidential run who also led Beto O’Rourke’s digital fundraising efforts for his 2018 Senate run. “On the Bloomberg campaign, it’s my impression that their team had a blank check to spend on digital — but that doesn’t mean they have experience running an innovative digital program that inspires supporters and mobilizes voters.”
Trump campaign spokesperson Ali Pardo said that the Biden campaign spat is moot. “As we have been saying for months, no amount of money can buy Joe Biden the kind of infrastructure our campaign has put in place over the last four years,” she said.
The Biden campaign did not make senior campaign officials available for an interview. In a statement, a Biden adviser said the current digital team packs “a hell of a punch and we’re looking forward to expanding for the general election while being smart about not overextending ourselves.” The adviser said that new hires are coming but did not specify when.
Despite the lack of new hires, Biden’s campaign has been attempting to close the digital gap with a recent splurge online. Since Feb. 29, it outspent Trump’s on Facebook and Google $ 10.3 million to $ 7.3 million, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive.
But the holding pattern on personnel has baffled freshly unemployed staffers from the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Harris, who feel that valuable time is slipping away. Several said they reached out in recent weeks to offer help with little response. That frustration spilled out into the open Monday in response to a story from Bloomberg News about Biden’s digital standstill.
“This is the earliest a primary has been settled in recent history, the Biden campaign should be taking advantage and staffing up yesterday,” Rodericka Applewhaite, a senior rapid response researcher for Buttigieg’s campaign, wrote on Twitter Monday. “Especially digital as it’s been THE game in town for nearly 2 months now.”
Beyond the debate over using an outside firm or building the digital team inside the campaign, Hawkfish in particular has provoked outrage from some of the most prominent digital strategists in Democratic politics.
“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.”
Some progressive digital operatives point to Groundwork, the tech vendor Clinton’s 2016 campaign used that was championed by Google’s Eric Schmidt, as an example of this dynamic in past elections.
Some digital operatives also warned that Bloomberg’s connection to the firm could undermine Biden’s recent attempts to get the left wing of the party to enthusiastically back him. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted that the Biden campaign ought to reject Hawkfish. “This is a bad idea. A really bad one,” she wrote earlier this month.
One former Obama campaign official agreed. “There’s no good reason to trust that they could even do the job, while there are numberless reasons to expect that they’d [screw] it up,” the official said. And “it would step on their overtures to the left, which would be a terrible mistake."
Should Hawkfish’s bid falter, the Biden campaign could still decide against building the operation internally and go with another firm. Democrats speculate that Blue State Digital — where some of Warren’s senior staffers are now working — could swoop in and argue that there isn’t enough time for the Biden campaign to build its own team.
Hawkfish did not respond to several requests for comment, but its defenders dismissed the criticism of the firm as professional jealousy from people who may lose Biden’s business and a misunderstanding of the organization.
They argue that with Bloomberg’s financial wherewithal behind it, the firm will not be as focused on turning a profit and could save the Biden team money as it faces a cash disadvantage. Bloomberg invested another $ 20 million in the company on March 31, weeks after he ended his presidential bid, CNBC reported Tuesday.
They also contend that the blend of talent and money allows the firm to be more experimental, which the party needs to take on the digitally-savvy Trump team.
Hawkfish has existed only since 2019. During Bloomberg’s presidential run, the campaign said the firm was its “primary digital agency and technology services provider” and provided digital ad services, content creation, ad placement and analytics. That tremendous capacity has also led to worries that the firm is after more than just the Biden campaign.
“It’s been said that Hawkfish is trying to pitch themselves as the cheapest option so they have a shot at taking over the party data infrastructure,” Cole said. “If that happens, I won’t know who we are as a party anymore.”