A major liberal group has drawn up a multimillion dollar plan to make Joe Biden cooler online. And the initiative has the blessing of a top White House official.
The organization, ProgressNow, is launching a $70 million project to help the president and down-ballot Democrats win the war for voters’ digital attention. The idea is to create, in their own words, an “echo chamber” on the left. At its heart, it is an effort to compete with one they say already operates on all cylinders on the right.
More broadly, it represents an important test of whether Democrats can successfully market the oldest president ever to an electorate that has consistently expressed reservations about his age and wished that another person would be the party’s standard-bearer, according to polls.
The center of ProgressNow’s plan is an app that the group has developed called Megaphone. Users who download the app can scroll through a series of liberal memes, videos and graphics created by the organization, add their own captions, and then quickly share them on social media platforms.
“ProgressNow has become an important partner to the groups supporting the Biden-Harris agenda,” said Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser and top 2020 Biden strategist who added she was providing her comment in a personal capacity. Ramping up “ensures they will be in an even stronger position to deliver compelling digital communications to people in their communities through a grassroots network that effectively complements efforts in 2024 and beyond.”
Inherent in the ProgressNow strategy is the fact that liberals have been outmaneuvered online by the conservative movement for years, something the group’s leaders readily admit — and that more than a decade after former President Barack Obama was supposed to have ushered in a new form of voter communication, the party has been uninventive under Biden.
To combat this, ProgressNow is hiring more than 65 new digital organizers across 10 battleground states to manage a band of volunteers who will be tasked with sharing the organization’s online content far and wide through Megaphone. By the fall of 2024, the group is looking to expand its grassroots army to 13,000 volunteers nationwide.
The group has already begun message-testing its efforts, revealing some unexpected details.
For example, the organization looked at a handful of social media graphics touting Biden’s handling of the economy, a critical weakness for him among voters. Staffers thought that a bright pink image that depicted a text message conversation — rather than graphics featuring photos of Biden himself — would perform better.
But social media users liked the content that pictured the president, alongside text that read “Bidenomics Prioritizes Working Families” and “Bidenomics Recovering the Economy Faster Than Ever.”
“Full disclaimer: That’s not the content that I thought was going to be the winner,” said Anna Scholl, president of ProgressNow. “What worked was both more words and more imagery of Biden.”
Scholl described the project’s digital volunteers who use the Megaphone app as “nano-influencers” — people who are “who are active in their local PTA and their church group.” They will serve as critical bullhorns, she said, because voters have turned to those kinds of small-scale community leaders more as faith in the media and politicians plummet.
Scholl and other ProgressNow leaders said the investment is aimed at reaching people in today’s fragmented media landscape, who are increasingly turning to social media and streaming services for information, as well as more diverse communities. It also represents an attempt to shore up the president’s standing among young voters, who spend much of their time online.
“They’re getting their news and their information from what their friends and colleagues are posting and sharing on TikTok, on Instagram, on Facebook,” Scholl said. “They’re also trusting those folks as trusted messengers, far more than they’re trusting elected officials.”
ProgressNow, a nonprofit umbrella group founded in 2003 that attempts to boost progressive communications online, will also run digital ads and scale up its national operation. ProgressNow has 26 state affiliates, which also are 501c4 organizations and sometimes operate additional super PACs.
The group is singing from the same hymnal as the Biden campaign. In a memo earlier this year, the president’s reelection team identified breaking through the disjointed media environment as a top priority, saying that “while trust in the media may have eroded, trust in people’s personal networks has never been higher.”
ProgressNow’s operatives and donors said in interviews that they hope to fill a hole that’s long bedeviled them: Whereas the right has built a 24-7 attention-grabbing machine online as well as on TV and radio, Democrats have largely relied on paid advertising and traditional media organizations to get their message out. The problem, they argued, is that people are paying less attention to those spaces as they shift to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu — and news sites put up paywalls.
“The left has been getting outpaced online,” said Scholl. But, she added, “the goal of Megaphone is not to replicate the right-wing echo chamber infrastructure. It is to build our own echo chamber infrastructure.”
Democrats have lamented the far-right echo chamber for decades, and it’s a complaint that often flares up when the party is feeling more anxious.
The Strategic Victory Fund, an initiative of the leading donor group Democracy Alliance, is planning to raise the majority of the $70 million for the effort.
Scott Anderson, president of the Strategic Victory Fund, called Megaphone “the future of organizing.”
“What we’re trying to do here is to get in front of people with information in their feeds, allow them to become amplifiers in their own right, and to help try to drive the conversation in a way that doesn’t just require people to be face to face,” he said.
ProgressNow is targeting 10 states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, Montana, Ohio and Minnesota. Almost all of them are presidential or Senate battlegrounds in 2024.
The Megaphone app will be available to its state affiliates and other outside groups that are helping elect Biden and Democrats down the ticket, including Future Forward, the super PAC elevated by the president’s aides, and America Votes, a liberal organization focused on turning out voters.
ProgressNow also plans to rigorously test the messages that it churns out on Megaphone to see what works and what doesn’t, data that could prove valuable in 2024. Oftentimes, the results are counterintuitive, as with the Biden graphic.
In last year’s midterms, ProgressNow piloted Megaphone in the key swing state of Michigan. The group’s researchers found that their target audience was extremely interested in astrology, so they made a digital ad boosting Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that looked like a horoscope.
“See Today’s Horoscope,” it read. A few seconds later, more text popped up: “Renewing your vehicle tabs and updating your voter registration online is easier than ever thanks to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.”
“I’ve been in political communications for well over a decade. And if you told me that we’re going to build an astrology ad,” he wouldn’t have believed “that it would work,” said Lonnie Scott, ProgressNow’s interim managing director.
It ended up being the organization’s most successful advertisement in the state that cycle.
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