Biden campaign focuses on diverse coalition building with new senior leadership

The campaign wants to boost support among blacks and Latinos ahead of November.

May 21, 2020, 9:49 AM

With just over five months until the general election and facing a barrage of public advice on how to move forward with a campaign in the midst of a global pandemic, former Vice President Joe Biden’s team is pushing ahead with a new strategy, focusing on hiring new leaders amid increased outreach to key, diverse voting groups they consider critical to build a winning constituency against President Donald Trump in November.

The campaign, which has recently announced plans for a major expansion in the coming weeks, is aiming to revamp its team to reach communities of color, in particular Latinos, a group Biden struggled to court throughout the Democratic primary.

Biden’s campaign signaled they would be intensifying their outreach with new and diverse senior leadership, and announced Wednesday the hire of Karine Jean-Pierre, a former Obama administration official and the chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, a progressive public policy group.

Jean-Pierre will join the highest ranks of the Biden campaign as a senior advisor developing programs to engage with key communities, as well advising on strategy and communication. Her hiring drew praise from both establishment Democrats and progressive groups like MoveOn, who called her a “trusted friend and colleague” and a “tremendous asset to the campaign.”

“I have a great deal of admiration and respect for her. I really believe that she brings the kind of stature to this campaign that will make all of us proud. I'm a big fan of her,” Rep. James Clyburn told ABC News Wednesday.

“She's got a very sophisticated understanding of politics. She also obviously can help build relationships within the progressive community, within the communities of color, among women,” David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Obama, told ABC News.

Jean-Pierre’s hiring comes the day after the Biden campaign announced they were bringing on board Julie Chávez Rodriguez as a senior advisor to help with its outreach to the Latino community and expand the campaign’s state-based operations.

Karine Jean-Pierre speaks onstage at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum at The Warfield Theatre on June 01, 2019 in San Francisco, California.
Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn

Chávez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of civil rights leader César Chávez, and still serves as a political consultant for California Sen. Kamala Harris. She previously worked in the Obama White House as a liaison to leaders in the LGBT, Asian-American, Latino, veterans, youth, education, labor, and progressive communities.

“The work my grandfather did was the first phase of this and now we have to take on powerful interests in a new way. He continues to inform my work. There's one quote of his that rings true, he said, "We don' need perfect political systems, we need perfect participation,"" Chávez Rodriguez told ABC News in an interview Thursday.

The additions of Jean-Pierre and Chávez Rodriguez underscores the campaign’s efforts to ramp up for a general election battle against President Trump.

As the campaign plows ahead to November, they continue to grapple with the unprecedented nature of running a campaign remotely. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Axelrod, along with President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, gave public advice to Biden’s campaign, imploring the campaign to engage surrogates, and organize voter outreach programs virtually.

“[Jen O’Malley Dillon] could have written a piece that David Plouffe and I wrote in the New York Times, and you know just now for her, it's a matter of executing on all of that while in the position of coming to the campaign at a time when you have to operate remotely,” Axelrod said of Biden’s campaign manager, adding there “isn’t a better person” in the Democratic party to lead Biden’s campaign.

The challenge of virtual campaigning is not lost on Jean-Pierre and Chávez Rodriguez, who agreed the campaign’s efforts needed to expand beyond Biden’s virtual endeavors.

“I also think that we’ve got to get surrogates out there. We’ve got to get people who support our candidate, who support the Democratic Party, support what we're trying to do out there speaking on behalf of the campaign. I think it's going to take really an army, a village to get this right because we do have to be innovative, we do have to reimagine how you run a campaign,” Jean-Pierre said.

“We have a tremendous amount of endorsements and surrogates that we need to start employing where we need to build coalitions in. That's what I think is an important phrase one. The [other] piece of it is making sure we're leveraging some of these other community based organizations, more non-profits, organizations across the country that have purposely pivoted to more of an electoral focus. They realize their advocacy can only go so far,” Chávez Rodriguez said.

On a call with reporters last week, O’Malley Dillon suggested that the former vice president had a pathway to victory though 17 battleground states, and would build a winning coalition of voters that would draw from three key groups: young and minority voters, suburban women, and disaffected voters who backed Trump in 2016 or did not vote.

O’Malley Dillon said Biden’s team is focusing on creating customized messages to specific groups in states on their battleground map, with tailored approaches for registering, persuasion and turnout--a focus Axelrod agreed with.

“I think it's really a matter of mobilization. I don't think there's a danger of progressive voters or voters of color in large numbers to migrate to Trump. It's a matter of getting them out to vote and feeling invested in this election,” Axelrod said.

“There has to be a focus on states because the election will be decided in a handful of battleground states where margins matter. And we saw that in 2016. So, it seems to me that just the math of contemporary politics dictates that you have a state by state focus,” Axelrod said.

Biden’s struggles with Latino voters have come into focus as a general election matchup with Trump approaches. Latinos are poised to become the largest racial or ethnic minority during a presidential election cycle, according to the Pew Research Center.

Public polling indicates that Biden indeed has significant ground to make up with Latinos. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday afternoon showed Biden with an 11-point lead over Trump nationally, but just a 7-point lead with Latinos, a group former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won by 38 points in 2016.

Dr. Jill Biden has participated in several virtual campaign stops targeting swing states in recent weeks, including two in Arizona and Colorado that specifically targeted Latinos billed as “Charla con Biden,” or “Chat with Biden” events, and the campaign also organized a press call Wednesday morning focused on the unemployment disparities the Latino community is facing during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

One prominent Latino group said that the Biden campaign “still has more work to do in its efforts,” to reach the critical voting bloc, but welcomed the new hires.

Julie Chavez Rodriguez is seen here.
White House Archives

“Julie and Karine are a unity ticket. I have had the pleasure of working with both of them in different capacities. They are friends,” María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, a grassroots political organization focused on engaging and turning out Latinx voters, told ABC News.

“While the Biden campaign still has more work to do in its efforts to reach Latinx voters, these are welcome additions and I look forward to seeing them in action,” she added.

“I think we have an important opportunity to mobilize young voters, I think we saw an important level of engagement with Bernie and the broader Democratic Party, making sure we can do everything we can and to speak to what is most relevant. And I also see Latinas as a key component. They play a critical role in our households and family, so how do we motivate that segment of our community because the ripple effect - it will create that groundswell we need in terms of turnout,” Chávez Rodriguez said.

The campaign is also seeking to maintain strong support with the minority voters who helped carry Biden to a resounding win in South Carolina, setting off a chain of victories on Super Tuesday that exceeded even the campaign's expectations for the night.

“It takes a coalition to win in a general election, but I think that you have to continue to talk to African American voters, black voters and other communities as well, and what that means is that you have to have a message that resonates,” Jean-Pierre said.

Throughout his career, Biden has enjoyed strong support among the voting bloc--support that appears to persist, with Quinnipiac poll Wednesday showing him leading the president by 78 points with African American voters.

“The onus on the campaign is that we have to keep that energy, we have to keep that excitement. We have to make sure that people are going to come out and not feel suppressed because their vote is going to be suppressed...That is what the campaign is going to have to really zero in and be clear about,” Jean-Pierre said.

In recent weeks as Biden’s vice presidential search has officially gotten underway, there has been much speculation about the pick, and the signal it could send to rest of the party.

Several African American leaders, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Clyburn, who many credit with Biden’s campaign revival in South Carolina, expressed their hope that Biden would choose the first African American woman to serve as his running mate, as a way to signal his commitment to the base that helped him become the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Others have suggested placing Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the ticket would serve as an outreach to progressive Democrats, and signal Biden’s ability to move towards the policies they championed during the primary

According to Jean-Pierre, Biden’s nominee will be a critical piece to building a ticket that will create a movement in the Democratic Party.

“I think that's gonna be really exciting, that ticket,” She said. “I think it'll be a strong Democratic ticket, it'll be a ticket that we will all be proud of and I think that's going to be a great show how future looking, future forward we are as a party and that Joe Biden is. So I think that's going to be an interesting place to make some ground and to get the base excited.”

ABC News' Zohreen Shah contributed to this report.

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