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Biden's campaign is getting rolling. Here's what's been happening behind the scenes

President Biden gestures after speaking at a Juneteenth concert on June 13, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden gestures after speaking at a Juneteenth concert on June 13, 2023.

Past a maze of low-walled cubicles at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, there's a sparsely decorated corner office overlooking train tracks. That is where President Biden's campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez is working these days.

"Until we get our headquarters straight," Chávez Rodríguez said. The campaign hasn't yet announced where it will be based, though Wilmington, Del., is the leading contender.

For now, the party and Biden's campaign are nearly indistinguishable. "Right now, we're really unified under one umbrella and in this building — literally one building — and continuing to grow and build from here," said Chávez Rodríguez, in her first broadcast interview since being named campaign manager.

"I'm very excited that I'm not having to function like a full start-up operation, but instead really do have the resources and the infrastructure and the people power to connect with voters as we need to," she said.

It's been almost two months since Biden launched his reelection campaign. This weekend, in Philadelphia, he will finally attend his first political rally of the 2024 race.

Hosted by the AFL-CIO and other labor unions, he is expected to scoop up a handful of early endorsements. And while it may look like a slow start, there's been a lot going on behind the scenes at the DNC.

Long an afterthought for Democratic presidential campaigns, the DNC is now a central part of the Biden reelection strategy. Biden and his team invested in the organization between presidential election cycles, and the DNC, in turn, has invested in everything from U.S. Senate races in 2022 to the mayor's race in Jacksonville, Fla., earlier this year.

Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, as seen in a 2016 file photo.
Paul Holston / AP
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AP
Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, as seen in a 2016 file photo.

This is a big shift from the recent past, when the DNC was a mess

There are now about 300 people on the DNC staff, with a mission of year-round campaign infrastructure, aimed at getting Democrats elected up and down the ballot, even in off-year elections.

Sam Cornale, the DNC's executive director, compares the organization to a race car. "I'm not here to tell you that the race car is already built and it's out running laps on the track," he said. "I am here to tell you that the chassis is in incredible shape — and that is what the Biden-Harris campaign is building on top of."

President Biden takes selfies with guests at a White House event on June 15, 2023.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
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AP
President Biden takes selfies with guests at a White House event on June 15.

The party's operations have not always been this flush.

"The DNC, when I got there, had essentially been gutted," said Mo Elleithee, the party's communications director from 2013 to 2015. "There was ... not even a field director, let alone a robust field organization. It was $27 million in debt. The research shop had been decimated."

A couple of years later, things were not much better. "When I walked into the DNC in 2017, we had a fundraising team of three people, none of whom had any experience in actually raising money," Cornale said. "We were less than 100 staff. The word I like to use is just, 'atrophy.'"

Obama built his own operation. Biden likes the institution

The last Democratic president, Barack Obama, took a different approach to the DNC. Rather than combining the voter lists and fundraising operations from his 2008 presidential campaign with the DNC, Obama created an organization to house his political operation called Organizing for America.

"He had lots of supporters who would never be traditional Democrats, and wanted to be outside that system," said Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager.

Biden, on the other hand, is an institutionalist. "Biden understands the power of the DNC and understands how to build a campaign around it. And they really did spend 2021, 2022 building up the DNC, which helped in the midterm elections and helps set him up for reelection," Messina said.

The revamped DNC helped in a Wisconsin race this spring

The DNC already has joint fundraising agreements with every single state party and the District of Columbia. That means they can raise as much as $929,600 from each donor and then direct that money to battleground states where it will be needed the most.

The stronger party apparatus helped in the 2022 midterm elections. Now, as the 2024 race gears up, in the year before the presidential election year, the Biden campaign is focused on fundraising and working with the DNC to refine their organizing tools "so that we can reach voters where they are, and everywhere that they are," said campaign manager Chávez Rodríguez.

The DNC poured resources into Wisconsin this spring to back Janet Protasiewicz (L) in her successful race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court versus Republican-backed Dan Kelly.
Morry Gash / AP
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AP
The DNC poured resources into Wisconsin this spring to back Janet Protasiewicz (left) in her successful race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court versus Republican-backed Dan Kelly.

The DNC flexed its new muscle this spring in Wisconsin's state Supreme Court race, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lot of effort. It worked. Janet Protasiewicz, the Supreme Court candidate supported by the Democratic Party, won by double digits.

"[The DNC] organized volunteers from across the country to make phone calls into Wisconsin Democrats and remind them to get out and cast a ballot in early April," said state party chairman Ben Wikler.

The support made "a gigantic difference," Wikler said, contrasting it to 2012, when Democrats in the state were unsuccessful in efforts to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The recall vote was held in June of the presidential election year, but Wikler said it just wasn't a major focus of the DNC or the Obama presidential campaign.

"People in Wisconsin worked so hard, but they wound up being flooded in dark money from the Koch network and these big right wing groups," said Wikler.

The strategy resembles Republican efforts in 2016

The emphasis the Biden campaign and DNC are putting on organizing and having a robust party apparatus in place is similar to what Republicans did in 2016.

The Republican National Committee logo on stage at a presidential debate in North Charleston, S.C., in 2016.
Rainier Ehrhardt / AP
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AP
The Republican National Committee logo on stage at a presidential debate in North Charleston, S.C., in 2016.

During that year's Republican nomination race, the Republican National Committee had been working hard so that when the nominee was picked, they were ready to go.

From the outside, it's hard to assess the strength of the DNC and Biden campaign approach, said Chris Carr, who was the RNC's political director in 2016.

"However, there are other factors that I would be worried about if I was at the DNC as their political director, or the campaign manager for President Joe Biden," Carr said.

He says public polls continue to flash with big red warning signs with Democratic voters saying they wish they had another option. While the Democratic establishment and the party are very much behind Biden, many Democratic voters say they are still uneasy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.