Biden’s Blessing

Pres. Biden
Democratic operatives are already jockeying to land “the blessing” from Joe Biden. Photo: Sarah Reingewirtz/Getty Images

In the argot of today’s soft-money political-industrial complex, there are few objects of affection more zealously coveted by presidential campaign operatives than the blessing. These days, everyone in politics is hawking some super PAC or another, and so everyone wants the imprimatur of a campaign headquarters, or an official statement that cuts through the noise and tells donors which outside group is the one they should be supporting with checks of unlimited size. Indeed, the blessing is perceived by some to be the great unlock that unfurls millions of dollars in donations, can make operatives rich, and bestow credibility upon an outside group at a time when so many super PACs have names that all sound identical, vacuous, or worse. 

To steer a blessed super PAC is to hold the rights to a centimillion-dollar bazooka. And so behind the scenes, some Democratic operatives are already jockeying to land the blessing from Joe Biden, whose team is beginning to plot what a 2024 re-election bid would look like. Yes, of course, no official decision has yet been made about the super PAC blessing or about Biden’s future, and Biden has publicly equivocated, even if his camp privately suggests (and vociferously so) that the guy is running. Regardless, none of this is enough to stop frenzied politicos from the blessing mating game. 

According to various sources close to the White House, the D.N.C, Democratic fundraisers, and even officials at other super PACs, it seems like a little shake-up is in store. Priorities USA, the establishment PAC long preferred and blessed by the Bidens, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, is unlikely to be the main super PAC of choice next cycle, at least as of this writing. Instead, the White House is leaning toward Future Forward, a new Silicon Valley-backed entrant that shot out of a cannon last cycle and ended up spending a total of one-quarter of a billion dollars in the 2020 cycle. The state of play is fluid, and some compromise may eventually be reached, but Future Forward is widely seen as having the inside track. The White House has been quietly nodding to donors to support the group in 2022, according to a Democratic fundraiser with direct knowledge of the conversations.

This little skirmish is reflective of the power dynamics within Bidenworld, a balkanized court of long-time advisers, former Obama aides, true believers, and post-primary hired guns. The internal debates also evidence differences between the White House’s top political advisers and their personal connections. Anita Dunn is said to have very fond feelings for Future Forward—to wit, she previously offered “consulting services” to the group, according to her most recent personal financial disclosure. Future Forward has also done work with SKDK, the influential messaging firm that Dunn co-founded, and with GMMB, which was founded by Jim Margolis, an old Obama hand who was also an early backer of Kamala Harris, handling her media and even training her for debate prep. Meanwhile, Biden’s former campaign manager and chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon is personally close with Priorities chairman Guy Cecil. Precision Media, the firm O’Malley Dillon co-founded with Stephanie Cutter, placed $24 million worth of media buys for Priorities in the 2016 cycle. (A source close to Biden world disputed that Dunn or O’Malley Dillon had charted out their preferred PACs. “The focus is on the midterms, period,” the source said.)

Yes, this is Washington, the world’s smallest high school cafeteria—it’s a place where relationships matter. And Dunn has been flexing her influence ever since she rejoined the White House earlier this year. She’s already been widely praised for her ability to rewrite the narrative of the Biden term, so it seems only natural that her preferred super PAC might receive the royal, or blessed, treatment. Future Forward’s research, distributed to the Democratic National Committee, has been particularly influential within the West Wing, and with Dunn and Mike Donilon specifically. Future Forward is also part of the largest advertising campaign for the Inflation Reduction Act with approximately $15 million in buys, according to a Democrat tracking media buys. 

“Anyone focused on 2024 right now definitely has their priorities in the wrong place. Our focus is on the election right in front of us,” said Cecil. And yet Cecil, who is expected to significantly reduce his role at Priorities after November, knows that his industry has gotten more competitive. “The political world has changed and there are so many organizations doing critical work, including Future Forward, which spent millions to support President Biden in 2020 and should absolutely do it again in whatever capacity they choose.”

A decision to bless Future Forward would reflect a larger sea change in our politics, cementing the power of Silicon Valley donors and right-brained thinking within the Democratic big money game. As early as 2019, sources encouraged us to keep an eye on the then-largely unknown PAC, positing that it was likely to become the repository of campaign dollars from mega-donors like Facebook and Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and others. Indeed, over the following year, Moskovitz gave at least $50 million to the group to finance a late anti-Trump TV barrage. (It’s unknown how many millions of dollars Moskovitz may also have donated to Future Forward’s affiliated dark-money 501(c)(4) group, which took in a staggering $150 million that year, according to the nonprofit’s tax filing, including $55.8 million from a single, undisclosed donor.) The other disclosed big donors behind Future Forward during 2020 were a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley heavies: Sam Bankman-Fried, Eric and Wendy Schmidt, Jeff and Erica Lawson, Karla Jurvetson, etc. No wonder Silicon Valley sources are excited to hear that their group may get the rose.

Priorities, Priorities…

A decision to make Future Forward the blessed group, or even a blessed group, would amount to an unmistakable reorientation of the Democratic super PAC landscape. Ever since 2012, when Obama reluctantly embraced PAC money in his arms race with Mitt Romney, the favored group has always been Priorities USA, which memorably buried Romney in a series of searing ads about Bain Capital. Its central role was cemented in 2016, when it became closely associated—perhaps overly so—with Clinton.

But as Democrats waded deeper into the world of big money, more and more super PACs began sprouting up and staking competing claims. By the time 2020 rolled around, and after Biden secured the nomination that spring, there were several Democratic super PACs all knife-fighting one another to become the main pro-Biden group. Chaos ensued. Biden, who initially swore off the help of super PACs in the primaries, eventually relented when his campaign was struggling and accepted the support of Steve Schale’s ever-loyal Unite the Country, which was the only outside big money group to support Biden during the primary. Even after winning the nomination, Biden did not initially want to direct donors to one PAC over another but after much arm twisting, Biden gave the blessing to Priorities in a formal statement via the Wall Street Journal, saying that it was “a leader” and the de facto approved group. 

Priorities won, sure, but the decision stoked widespread consternation and frustration among supporters of other groups, such as David Brock’s powerhouse American Bridge. It also angered Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement helped Biden clinch the nomination, as his daughter was on the board of Unite the Country. Biden eventually had to clean it all up with a second statement. No wonder then that so many Democrats these days just want clarity—and not a repeat of the chaos of early 2020. “There’s not going to be one group helping Joe Biden in 2024, whether they bless them or not,” said one person involved in the conversations.

Whether the blessing matters as much as conventional wisdom suggests is debated. Without a doubt, donors interested in supporting a candidate in excess of campaign contributions limits do listen to where the campaign brass points them to have the most impact. Campaign officials can and do attend and speak at super PAC briefings (without formally asking for money for the super PAC, of course), lending an imprimatur that unblessed groups would lust for. Other Democratic fundraisers are high on Build Back Together, an existing White House-blessed group, but one that is a more tightly-regulated 501(c)(4), not a super PAC.

But ten years after Citizens United, the parties’ senior-most operatives have deep relationships with all subsections of the party’s biggest donors, and those are sometimes proprietary. Priorities has their donor network, Bridge has their network, Future Forward has their network, etc. and whichever super PAC gets a blessing or not doesn’t totally alter the deal that can be struck when a single donor sits down with a single operative at a hotel bar or an oceanside home. Some operatives involved in the behind-the-scenes battle profess a Shaka-sign confidence that things will work out just fine for everyone.  

East vs. West

Future Forward is led by a former Obama 2012 aide, Chauncey McLean, whose background is in television advertising—not in the creative, but in the use of technology and analytics to test effective messages and then to deploy them for the greatest possible R.O.I. He has a near-sterling reputation and is very well known by political insiders, despite intentionally keeping a low profile, spending more time in his home of Seattle, Washington than in Washington, D.C. Like a new class of younger progressive operatives, including Acronym founder Tara McGowan, McLean and his work have become very popular with Silicon Valley donors, specifically the people who have grown distrustful of the establishment political groups that Priorities, fairly or unfairly, personifies. Another Silicon Valley favorite who has worked extensively for Future Forward groups is David Shor, the Democratic polling wunderkind who is listened to by the White House. (McLean, befitting his lower profile, declined to comment when approached for this piece.)

Future Forward’s appeal to donors has been that they cover late-in-cycle television advertising spending and promise to test television spots much more rigorously than any competing groups. That ballyhooed political establishment often wonders, in not-for-attribution conversations, whether there is really any secret sauce behind this Silicon Valley startup, and bristles at the suggestion that other super PACs there don’t do enough ad testing and data analytics. Priorities has Future Forward beat on experience, staff size, and political infrastructure. And so while Cecil has his detractors in this cutthroat world, one pro-Priorities Democratic operative argued that making Future Forward the principal group “would be a huge mistake.” Why throw all of the weight behind an upstart in what may be another “fight of our lives” election with Trump?

Where Priorities does not have Future Forward beat is among donors. While Priorities is close with what could be considered the old-guard of the Democratic donor world—the types of people who frequent meetings of the Democracy Alliance and have supported the party leadership for decades (i.e., not Silicon Valley)—Future Forward has captured the imagination of the new donors who are now the beating heart of the Democratic financial universe. One longtime soft-money operative compared the two groups as “East Coast vs. West Coast,” describing Future Forward as “West Coast, very empirical, look at the data, run the test, and put the money on the stuff that tests best. Priorities is more old school, and tries to figure out what it’s doing in the context of the races.” 

Another difference is that while both Future Forward and Priorities do some television and some digital spending, Future Forward spends more on television while Priorities has transformed itself into an organization that, these days at least, has a heavy emphasis on digital. (Yes, there is some irony in that the Silicon Valley-backed super PAC is less digitally-focused.) Those complementary areas of expertise have led some political insiders to speculate that the Dunn-Dillon war games may end with some sort of compromise. In fact, Priorities expects multiple groups to get blessings, and for someone else to win the TV blessing. Much of Future Foward’s argument has been that it is not so simple to segregate TV from digital. But maybe, the thinking goes, Future Forward would get tapped for television advertising, and Priorities for digital advertising. Even that, though, would be a shakeup in the big-money pecking order that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.