2020 Election

Inside the Democrats’ Plan to Win Back the Internet

16 minute read

Joyce Greenberg Brown first learned about political organizing from Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, when he visited her youth group at a Philadelphia YWCA. She worked for George McGovern in Pennsylvania in 1972 and managed field offices in Florida for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. She was so dedicated to Hillary Clinton that after Clinton lost, she dyed purple and green streaks into her white hair–the colors of the original suffragist movement–to protest Donald Trump.

If it weren’t for COVID-19, Brown would be working at a field office for Joe Biden in Florida, where she lives. But the pandemic has prevented the kind of campaigning she’s done for decades. There are no rallies in packed stadiums, no handshakes at parades, no photo lines or kaffeeklatsches. Instead, Brown, 76, is at home, spending hours using Google Voice to text Floridians about voting by mail, sending them a link where they can register for a mail-in ballot. She estimates she’s sent roughly a thousand so far. “Digital is kind of a foreign word to me because I’m not a digital person,” she says. “I would much rather be out on the streets.”

For more than half a century, Democrats have put their faith in field organizing as the key to campaign success. But this year, instead of marching through neighborhoods with clipboards, Democratic staffers, Biden campaign volunteers and activists across the party are texting, messaging and commenting at their neighbors’ virtual doorsteps. Instead of sharing beer in field offices, they’re trading memes on Slack channels. Instead of finding volunteers at farmers’ markets or school-board meetings, they’re scouring Facebook groups and Twitter threads for potential recruits. Campaign events that were once held in high school gyms are now held on Zoom and promoted on Instagram and TikTok. Because in order to win Florida, or Arizona, or the White House, Democrats know that they first have to win the Internet.

You could think of the Internet as a battleground state in its own right. It has its own regions and cultures, its own communities and constituents, its own gatekeepers and power players. Just as operatives like to talk about the “five Ohios,” or deploy different political messages in disparate parts of Pennsylvania, cutting-edge campaigns in 2020 are varying their pitches to voters by platform, storming different corners of the Internet with different tactics. They recruit volunteers in Facebook groups, blast factoids on Twitter and host Instagram Lives with celebrities. “Digital is the new field,” says Democratic strategist Tim Lim. “You’re basically taking 80 to 100 years of political organizing and throwing it out the window.”

Across the party, operatives and volunteers alike are adjusting to their new roles. In late July, the Biden campaign unveiled an app, Vote Joe, that allows volunteers to cross-reference their phone contacts with the voter file so they can target infrequent voters. Sign-ups on Mobilize, an events and volunteer-recruitment platform used by many Democratic campaigns, have increased 87% from April to July, and the vast majority of those sign-ups are now for digital events. State parties are training field organizers in online canvassing, grassroots groups are designing Instagram graphics, and teens are posting the hashtag #SettleForBiden to warn disaffected young voters against voting third party. TikTok videos with this hashtag have been viewed more than 50 million times.

Biden at a socially distant campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 14
Biden at a socially distant campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 14Patrick Semansky—AP

But the Democrats have a lot of catching up to do. In recent years, the party has lagged behind the GOP’s investment in digital infrastructure and advertising. Republicans have mastered the Facebook algorithm and become experts at making right-wing grievance go viral. Unlike Biden, who spent decades practicing the politics of handshakes and huddles, Donald Trump rose rapidly in 2016 thanks in part to a digital strategy that weaponized targeted Facebook ads. (Trump’s digital strategist, Brad Parscale, a political novice in 2016, was tapped two years later to run the 2020 campaign, but was replaced in July amid sinking poll numbers and poor turnout at the President’s first in-person rally in months.)

Trump, in other words, has been focusing on digital for four years; Biden has been at it for about four months. The investment shows: Trump has 11 times as many Twitter followers as Biden and eight times as many interactions on Facebook, and he outspent Biden 3 to 1 on Facebook in the past 30 days. More than Florida or New York, the Internet is Trump’s home state. “Trump’s campaign was literally built around Facebook,” says Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit ACRONYM, which builds digital infrastructure for Democrats. “Biden’s campaign is still trying to make digital a centerpiece, but that’s not how their team has thought in the past.”

Yet followers, Facebook interactions and ads don’t win elections; votes do. Biden is already ahead in the polls. What he needs now, his supporters say, is organizers to help him turn those poll numbers into votes, especially in an election where many Americans will be casting ballots by mail for the first time. That means grandmothers sending texts, teachers making graphics and homebound activists typing personalized Facebook messages, all working together to take on Trump’s digital colossus and spread the gospel of voting by mail. To win in November, as Biden digital-organizing director Jose Nunez puts it, “The Joe Biden campaign and the Democratic Party [have] to build the largest grassroots digital volunteer movement in history.”

Mariana Castro has been waiting for this moment. A 26-year-old from Peru who was protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Castro has spent most of her adult life advocating for immigrants’ rights. When Trump won Florida in 2016, she knew she would spend the next four years fighting him. “This not Biden vs. Trump,” she says. “This is my entire community, my family, against Trump.”

Now, as the deputy digital director for the Florida Democratic Party, Castro helps lead a team of six women, all in their 20s, who spend their days organizing Florida voters on social media. They live in five different cities–one in New York–and none have ever met one another, but they’ve become a close-knit team through daily Google Hangouts and FaceTime calls. Not even Castro and her boss, Chelsea Daley, 26, have met in real life.

As Daley sees it, the Internet can be carved into turf, just like a state. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok and Snapchat each require a different outreach strategy, messaging and tone, and reach different types of voters. Which means each of the digital organizers specializes not in traditional subsets, like geographic regions or age groups, but in mastering different social-media platforms.

In the weeks leading up to the Florida Democrats’ virtual Leadership Blue convention in July, the Twitter organizer sent hundreds of tweets announcing new attendees and speakers, while the young woman in charge of TikTok posted a “What I’d Wear As” meme video of herself dressing up as various Florida political types. The Instagram organizer put up a photo of a dog attending the convention on a laptop, while on Pinterest, the team posted a recipe for “Leadership Blueberry Pancakes.” “Every platform is so different,” Daley says. “The audience is different, the way you organize and mobilize is so different.”

Castro spends her days in front of two laptops, an iPad and a ring light for making Instagram videos. She’s mostly focused on organizing the Latino community in Florida, which she does from her mom’s living room in Kissimmee. That means posting new ads in groups like Venezolanos con Biden, recruiting Latino influencers for Instagram Live events or soliciting personal stories from Florida voters to share to the Democrats’ various platforms. “For the Hispanic community, social media has always been a way of communication, because we often can’t travel back to our home countries,” she says. “You build different communities through these digital platforms.” Castro uses WhatsApp groups rather than text chains, because she knows that’s the preferred messaging app for many Latino families. “If I text my mom through regular message, she won’t text me back,” Castro says.

The pivot to digital organizing involves rethinking some of the foundational concepts of political mobilization, which are often rooted in physical spaces. Organizer no longer means a student with a bullhorn or a clipboard. Actions are no longer neighborhood canvasses on Saturday mornings. And communities can be groups bound by ethnic identity (Cubanos con Biden), shared experiences (Veterans for Biden) or personal passions. (On Facebook, nearly 1,500 people follow a page called Joe Biden Loves Dogs.) But at its root, organizing is about persuading people to disrupt their day-to-day lives to achieve a desired political result. Online, that relationship building unfolds in private Facebook groups, DM chats and text messages, and is often invisible to the public eye.

On Facebook, Daley’s organizers keep tabs on grassroots noncampaign groups with names like Florida for Joe Biden 2020. When they notice someone who seems interested in doing more, they invite them to the official Democratic Party Facebook group for their region of the state, like Polk Democrats Grassroots Action. It’s the digital equivalent of seeing a homemade sign in someone’s window and inviting them to an official campaign event. The team calls these official Democratic Facebook groups “virtual field offices,” and that’s where the real work happens.

These offices are run by paid organizers, who ensure members show up to digital events and spread Biden’s message on their respective networks. The goal is to replicate the same level of “relational organizing that you’d get in a field office,” Daley says, invoking Obama’s 2008 strategy, which relied on people recruiting their friends and family.

Organizers call this process bringing people “up the ladder of engagement.” Posting on their own social feeds is the first rung. That leads to joining the digital field offices, which in turn leads to attending events, which leads to recruiting friends and family. Using this formula, the Florida Democratic Party says it has recruited more than 119,000 active volunteers. They’ve made 5.6 million calls and sent 4.3 million texts. Florida Democrats now have at least 500,000 more mail-in ballot enrollments than Republicans, and recent polls show Biden opening up a solid lead in Florida–a state Trump can’t afford to lose.

Biden is hardly the first Democratic presidential contender to try to harness the power of the Internet. Howard Dean pioneered online fundraising during the 2004 campaign. Obama used YouTube in 2008 and built an analytics team in 2012 that conducted massive data-mining experiments to boost fundraising. Bernie Sanders leveraged viral content and online donations in both of his primary bids. Biden himself has some digital instincts: a former aide recalls that when the White House digital team was posting its first Snapchat video, the Vice President came up with his now iconic flourish of donning aviator sunglasses.

But at 77, Biden is an old-fashioned politician who’s more comfortable working a rope line than posting on Instagram. During the Democratic primary, competitors like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg built sophisticated digital-outreach efforts; Biden emerged as the nominee despite having just a skeletal digital operation. Quarantined at home in the early days of the pandemic, he struggled at first to adjust to the Internet campaign, releasing a series of tepid videos to muted response.

In the months since, Biden has upped his game. He quadrupled his digital staff to roughly 100, bringing in hires from rival primary campaigns and media organizations like BuzzFeed. The Biden campaign, says digital director Rob Flaherty, now “actually looks a little more like a media publisher than a traditional campaign.” It promotes Biden’s message through feel-good videos designed to highlight the candidate’s warmth. They tend to be positive, wholesome and practical, sharing graphics on his economic plans and videos from his fundraisers. Flaherty often talks about running a campaign to “restore the soul of the Internet” the way Biden aims to “restore the soul of the nation,” leaving attacks to outside groups or the Democratic Party. Democratic National Committee chief mobilization officer Patrick Stevenson describes the division of labor this way: “We do the negative messaging; they do the positive messaging.”

Biden’s digital team knows the former VP’s online following doesn’t begin to compete with Trump’s. So its strategy has revolved partly around leveraging the popularity of others. “Where are people already talking about this? Where are the people who are already fired up about this?” says Biden senior adviser Caitlin Mitchell, 34, who is leading much of the digital strategy. Biden’s team has organized Instagram Live sessions with influencers including TV personality Keke Palmer and Jerry Harris from the Netflix series Cheer. (The idea of working with Harris earned the support of Biden’s college-age granddaughter Finnegan, who has the candidate’s ear on digital matters.)

“They don’t have the benefit of having these massive accounts,” says Andrew Bleeker, founder of Democratic digital-consulting group Bully Pulpit Interactive. “What they do have is an ecosystem of progressives that are as fired up as I’ve ever seen.”

To grow the campaign’s digital reach, the first step is making contact with potential volunteers, often through an automated text when they sign up for an event, says Nunez, the campaign’s new digital-organizing director. Once volunteers are inside what he calls the “front door,” they’ll be directed in one of two directions. If they live in a battleground state, they’ll get linked with a local office. If they’re volunteering in a nonbattleground state where the Biden team hasn’t hired full-time staff, like California or New York, they’ll become part of a “distributed organizing vertical,” based off the volunteer structures built by the Sanders and Warren campaigns. Battleground-state volunteers focus on registering local voters and persuading people in their area. Nonbattleground volunteers focus on recruiting volunteers and driving turnout in battleground states.

Grassroots groups are helping too. Soul Squad, a team of roughly 30 amateur graphic designers, spend their free time packaging Biden’s speeches and plans into digestible images to be shared on social media. The group is led by Christopher Schmidt, a 26-year-old middle-school science teacher in Pennsylvania who spends roughly five hours a day designing the graphics and managing the team. Schmidt says he was never very involved in traditional canvassing or field organizing; he doesn’t like to confront strangers, especially about politics, especially at somebody’s front door. But engaging online, he says, feels more natural. “It’s super easy to just have someone share a graphic,” he says. “It’s kind of like baby steps for people that aren’t always involved in politics.” By October, he hopes, the people who are now posting his images will be making phone calls for Biden instead.

If Biden’s digital content often has the feel of a friendly grandpa telling a story that goes on slightly too long, Trump’s is all about outrage. His team blankets Facebook with ads that leverage fury to sell swag–Trump T-shirts! Trump hats! Trump wineglasses!–and harvest the data. This strategy has made the President a digital Goliath. Using data from CrowdTangle, a public-insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, TIME compared Trump’s Facebook interactions to a combined list of more than 25 high-profile Democrats, including Biden and his campaign pages, former President Barack Obama, every major primary candidate, high-profile Democrats in the House and Senate, and Democratic Party pages. In the past three months, Trump alone got between double and triple the Facebook interactions of all these Democrats combined. “If they were having any success, they would be spending more on Facebook,” says Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh of Biden’s team. “Why are they spending so little? It’s because they’re not having success. It’s not because they don’t have the money.”

The Trump juggernaut extends to digital organizing as well. It aimed to recruit 2 million volunteers; as of this month, 1.8 million had volunteered since January 2019, Murtaugh said. Since March, he says, those volunteers made more than 64 million voter contacts (phone calls and door knocks) through a web-based system called TrumpTalk. Four million of those happened in the past week. By contrast, Biden’s organizing operation and the accompanying app only launched in late July: in the first few weeks, they’ve sent 500,000 texts and made 100,000 phone calls, a fraction of Trump’s reach.

But team Biden insists there’s reason to be hopeful. There are signs that Trump’s famous digital campaign–known as the “Death Star”–may not be firing on all cylinders anymore. Trump demoted Parscale in July. And feeding red meat to his base doesn’t do much to persuade independents or swing-state voters, who favor Biden in most recent polls. Harvesting hate-clicks worked against Hillary Clinton, the subject of years of conspiracy theories and corrosive misogyny, but Biden tends not to elicit the same passion. Besides, as Biden’s team insists: engagement is not the same as persuasion. “You’d rather have a hundred views if they’re the right views than a thousand retweets in the echo chamber,” says Teddy Goff, who ran Obama’s digital operation in 2012. “An ad targeted toward Trump people that says, ‘Donald Trump is the best, Democrats are crooks’ will always be more engaging than an ad from Biden targeting persuadable seniors that says, ‘Here’s my plan for the middle class coming out of the recession.'”

Amanda Litman, a longtime digital organizer who is now the executive director of Run for Something, which recruits young Democrats to seek state and local office, makes a similar point. “Good digital programs are really boring,” she says. “It is very authentically Joe Biden. It is stable. It is solid. It is a little boring. But it gets the job done.”

The disparate text messages from the Trump and Biden campaigns crystallize the difference in their approaches. Trump’s texts often take on the tone of an angry ex-boyfriend (“URGENT: President Trump texted you multiple times with no response?”). Biden’s have a cheerier tone (“Do you want to spend some time with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren? They are hosting a grassroots fundraiser on Friday, and you’re invited!”). Trump’s messages sometimes suggest he will hold a grudge against delinquent donors (“President Trump asked why the last patriot didn’t join. It’s YOU!”), while Biden’s subject lines are deferential: “A respectful ask of you.”

There’s no doubt the Democrats are fighting an uphill digital battle, outspent and outgunned. But they’re betting their adversary may self-destruct. “We love that Brad [Parscale] called it the Death Star,” says McGowan. “Because we know what happened to the Death Star in the end.”


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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com