Biden digital game outmatched by Trump a month into virtual race


  • TECH
  • Saturday, 18 Apr 2020

Biden speaks during the 11th Democratic candidates debate of the 2020 US presidential campaign, held without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, US. Unlike rivals like Warren or Sanders who relied on innovative technology to reach supporters during the Democratic primary season, Biden ran a traditional campaign leveraging his name recognition, political contacts and skills in retail politics. As of last week, Biden has hired no new staff with expertise in digital politics, the campaign said, instead relying on existing aides. — Reuters

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 Joe Biden, who thrives on the personal connection of retail politics, the transition is taking much longer.

Trump’s digital operation dominates the digital space in no small part thanks to the presidential bully pulpit and his massive Twitter presence. But 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 Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders who relied on innovative technology to reach supporters during the Democratic primary season, Biden ran a traditional campaign leveraging his name recognition, political contacts and skills in retail politics. As of last week, Biden has hired no new staff with expertise in digital politics, the campaign said, instead relying on existing aides.

Biden’s digital director, 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,” 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.”

Playing catchup

The Biden camp is just now beginning to ramp up its digital efforts, with some help from former rivals. He has held virtual town halls, hosting family-oriented YouTube users and started an interactive broadcast with coronavirus frontline workers. 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 Carla Aronsohn, who was Sanders’s 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.

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 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.

Out-of-date app, website

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 Sanders, his one remaining challenger, dropped out.

Overall, 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, US Federal Election Commission records show, he spent US$1.2mil (RM5.24mil). In the same time-frame, Trump spent US$2.9mil (RM12.67mil).

On social media, Biden’s footprint is dwarfed by Trump’s. He has 4.9 million followers on Twitter, compared to 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, Biden trails Trump by 17 million followers while on Facebook, Trump has garnered 24 million likes more than 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.

Ex-rivals offer help

Biden’s campaign says it’s upped its digital game since Sanders ended his campaign, and is now getting help from his former rivals. Sanders talked up Biden during an Instagram livestream with Cardi B while Warren asked Miley Cyrus’s followers on the platform to give his campaign US$5 (RM21); both performers have tens of millions of followers.

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 Biden to use their services is Hawkfish, which ran 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.

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

Biden’s digital race to the White House will be a group effort, Flaherty says. "It’s all about going everywhere, and talking to people in places where they may not expect to hear from you,” Flaherty said. "Making sure that the VP 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 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 Jim Stoltzfus, 40, a system administrator from Lancaster, Pa., who downloaded the app to find nearby events and connect with fellow Biden supporters. "But the lack of activity on the app worries me.”

‘Stone Age’

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.

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 Trump’s has been downloaded somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 times. Apple doesn’t publish information on downloads from its app store. — Bloomberg

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