Joe Biden's campaign is getting a revamp from an old Trudeau ally
She advised Trudeau's Liberals. Now she's Biden's campaign manager with a big task: fixing his digital game
Jen O'Malley Dillon advised the Trudeau Liberals as a hired consultant for the 2015 election, spoke at a Liberal party convention and addressed a three-day strategy retreat.
❤️❤️ Trudeau throws some Grade-A shade at Trump <a href="https://t.co/BORZJ7s3gN">https://t.co/BORZJ7s3gN</a>—@jomalleydillon
Now her old Canadian allies are watching her take on an unusual political task: leading a U.S. presidential campaign during a pandemic.
"These are unprecedented times," O'Malley Dillon said during an online briefing for campaign volunteers last weekend.
Campaigning now, she says, is "not a little different — a lot different."
The coronavirus has laid waste to old playbooks — it's cancelled public events and pushed campaign activities online, and into a virtual realm dominated by Donald Trump.
There's broad acknowledgement among top Democrats that online campaigning is currently a Trump strength.
Trump's campaign is using more sophisticated tactics, too, for gathering voter data and spreading his message: On his phone app, for instance, fans get prizes for publishing pro-Trump social media posts.
Barack Obama's former campaign manager says that worries him.
Trump is so good at making supporters parrot his message, Jim Messina said in a podcast, that he makes his own clients study Trump's methods.
"I hate him," said Messina, who was Obama's campaign manager in 2012, with O'Malley Dillon as his deputy manager.
"But he's doing a great job of that."
In March, Biden hired O'Malley Dillon, who had led Beto O'Rourke's unsuccessful run.
She briefed volunteers last weekend about Biden's plan to ramp up his online presence. It involves more ad spending, a relaunched website and a doubling of his digital team, which will now include alumni from other Democratic campaigns and online sites like Buzzfeed Video.
Her work with Trudeau
The 43-year-old Massachusetts native has worked on campaigns most of her adult life — she reminisced during the briefing about a bad haircut she got in Florida in 2000, when she was there fighting the Bush-Gore recount battle.
Her team lost that battle. Her Canadian allies had more luck in 2015.
O'Malley Dillon spoke especially often with Katie Telford, now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff, as the Liberal Party modernized its voter-outreach operations.
Several members of Trudeau's entourage, speaking in interviews, recalled her appearance at a three-day strategy session in Ottawa in mid-2015 where she grilled senior staff about their campaign plans.
WATCH | O'Malley Dillon spoke to Canada's Liberals at their 2014 convention
One compared her role there to an auditor, another to a panel moderator, another to a discussion facilitator. Former Trudeau aide Gerald Butts described her work as that of a dispassionate reviewer.
At the time, Trudeau's Liberals were mired in a deep slump, stuck in third place.
A dilemma within the operation was whether to develop a one- or two-campaign strategy: Should Trudeau target a few ridings, and try reducing the Harper Tories to a minority? Or spread resources across a broader map, in pursuit of an immediate win?
Butts recalled her being supportive of the view that ultimately prevailed — that the Tories appeared to be losing and would be replaced by whoever won the unofficial contest on the left between the Liberals and the NDP.
"She's telling our campaign leadership across the country: 'Don't believe the polls. You guys can still win this thing,'" Butts recalled.
Butts remembers her frequently asking things like: "Is that what the data is telling you?"
Some political lessons don't cross borders
Not all of O'Malley Dillon's lessons from U.S. politics were easily transferable to Canada, some Liberals recalled.
American operatives are used to tight races and speak of "paths to victory"; Canadian elections more often produce national waves. American campaigns have access to loads of consumer data; Canada has stricter privacy laws.
One Liberal said identifying party supporters is harder in Canada for another reason: In the multi-party system, it's not as easy to tell a Liberal from an NDPer from a Green as it is to figure out who's a Republican or a Democrat.
But one O'Malley Dillon mantra did strike a chord.
She preached the power of in-person outreach. The Liberals agreed, and leaned on volunteer door-knockers. They wound up spending less than one-tenth what the Conservatives did on hired calling services, according to Elections Canada reports.
It was the subject of O'Malley Dillon's speech to a party convention in 2014. She told Liberals that one single organizer can shift 1,000 votes by assembling a grassroots team — she said local volunteers are more trusted, not only when they knock on doors but also when they post on social media.
The former president of the Liberal Party, Anna Gainey, said O'Malley Dillion has a knack for making the online and offline parts of a campaign work together.
"That's all the more important for campaigns in 2020," Gainey said. "COVID-19 is prompting politics around the world to shift online even faster."
O'Malley Dillon is not the digital specialist in her own consulting firm. That's Teddy Goff, who led Obama's digital operations, and is assisting pro-Biden groups this year.
He called O'Malley Dillon a gifted manager — excellent at juggling multiple challenges at once, questioning old methods and adapting to changed circumstances.
"She's been handed one big and odd challenge [with this pandemic] — clearly, an unanticipated challenge," Goff said in an interview.
"But I imagine she'll bring to it the same mentality that she did to the 2015 Trudeau race and everything else she does, which is: 'What are our options? How do we usually do things? How can we make it better?'
"She's been a political innovator her whole life. Now she's got to innovate under slightly different circumstances."
The former Obama digital director said there are good reasons Trump has a bigger online following, including his years spent cultivating a celebrity persona. In addition, he said, social media lavishes attention on the incendiary and the outlandish.
Goff noted, for instance, that standard, staff-written White House tweets, like a tribute to a national holiday, get far fewer clicks than Trump's insults.
He said the Biden campaign has no reason to compete with Trump for who can create the greatest social media spectacle.
In fact, O'Malley Dillon even told volunteers last weekend that she's happy to let voters keep talking about the president, at one point displaying a slide that read, "This election is a referendum on Trump."
The president is currently behind in the overwhelming majority of national polls, and in most, though not all, swing-state polls.
"They're not out there to win a digital battle against Donald Trump. They're there to win an election against Donald Trump," Goff said.
"The person with the most accumulated retweets at the end of this cycle will absolutely be Donald Trump. There can be no question about that.… [But] who's going to have the most votes?"