Since then, O’Malley Dillon, 43, has been transforming what had been an underfinanced, undisciplined and dysfunctional Democratic primary operation into a general-election machine capable of carrying Biden through to the November election. (Disclosure: My adult son works for the Biden campaign.)
The lockdown order has meant that the nerve center of the campaign in which anxious Democrats are investing their hopes is now located on the third floor of O’Malley Dillon’s suburban Maryland home, where she is also raising twin 7-year-old daughters and a 2-year-old son. Her second-graders have taken to joking that their mother is “the ghost in the attic.”
If that fits, it is only because she has been so invisible to the public. In an era when big-time political operatives are celebrities nearly as recognizable as the politicians they handle — think James Carville and Karl Rove, or David Axelrod and Kellyanne Conway — O’Malley Dillon is no brand name. She speaks not in sound bites but in the jargon of a veteran operative — “high contact rates,” “new organizing model” — punctuated by the occasional profanity.
Inside Democratic circles, O’Malley Dillon has long been known for her discipline, organizational skills and strategic sense. She ran the battleground-states operation for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential effort and was deputy manager of his 2012 reelection campaign. Her twins were born a week after Election Day.
Biden presents a challenge of a different magnitude than any of her earlier endeavors. The Democratic primary had been a near-death experience for him. It looked as though the nomination was slipping from his grasp until, suddenly, thanks to South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn’s endorsement, it wasn’t. His campaign had to quickly transform itself from a shoestring operation into a juggernaut, against an incumbent president with seemingly bottomless financial resources.
Bringing in someone new in the midst of a campaign is always difficult; it looked to be particularly so for Biden, who for decades had been surrounded by the same tightknit clique of advisers, who in turn had long given up on keeping their boss on message. Lines of authority were tangled. There was more kibbitzing than decision-making. They were running out of money. Everyone agreed that the campaign needed to transform itself for the general election.
And this instant reinvention had to take place in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic in which many of the traditional tools of organizing and mobilization had to be jettisoned, because they have become flat-out dangerous to campaign workers and voters themselves.
Some political operatives elbow their way into the position, bruising egos along the way; O’Malley Dillon had to be cajoled. In early 2019, while the former vice president was still dithering over whether to run, she signed on to manage the short-lived campaign of former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. Having already uprooted her family to move to El Paso, O’Malley Dillon was reluctant to do it again.
So when Biden adviser Anita Dunn began imploring her last winter to take over the listless Biden operation, O’Malley Dillon balked. She agreed only to head to Nevada, as a sort of “super volunteer,” to pitch in with what then looked like a salvage operation.
With Biden having come in a humiliating fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, it was clear that he wouldn’t go any further if he didn’t make a decent showing in the Silver State’s Feb. 22 caucuses. Thanks in no small part to the work O’Malley Dillon put in on the fly, Biden managed to turn out enough caucus-goers to eke out a second-place finish that set him up for his South Carolina resurrection.
And O’Malley Dillon, having gotten a look under the hood of the Biden operation, realized she had a set of skills that were badly needed. At her husband Patrick Dillon’s urging — the two met in 2003 on then-Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) first presidential campaign — she finally agreed to sign up for the duration, assuming she was headed for Philadelphia.
Now, says Dunn, “There is no part of the campaign where we don’t have a lot more connective tissue and coordination than we did before.” Which is a diplomatic way of saying: Before this, things were a mess.
In the midst of the pandemic, Trump’s campaign is doing its best to carry on as though this were a normal time. It started out with a significantly more robust digital operation than Biden’s, and a louder voice on social media. The president has also continued to travel across the country for in-person events, albeit fewer and smaller than he would like, and his operation boasts that its volunteers knock on 1 million doors a week. Biden’s team knocks on zero. O’Malley Dillon believes that the last thing people want to see at this moment is a stranger on their doorstep.
So the campaign manager is trying to create a new way of organizing. As she described it: “We really tried to strip it back and say two things: One, it’s engagement. And it’s connection.” There are new tools such as Zoom calls with prominent surrogates, as well as virtual fundraisers and rallies. She is also discovering that some old-school tactics are working again: Voters looking for a break from their isolation are more willing to answer their telephones than they have been in recent years.
“We spent several months in the early part of the pandemic where we were doing heavy voter contact all across the country, but it was not political in nature,” she said. “It was about reaching people and checking in on them: How are you doing? What’s going on? What’s happening? How can we help?” Among its other endeavors, Biden’s team organized volunteers to make masks and drop off food at food banks.
Next week’s virtual Democratic National Convention will be another test of pandemic-induced creativity. Deciding not to send Biden to Milwaukee, where the convention was supposed to take place, was a hard decision for the campaign.
Plenty of worried Democrats would like to see Biden making his case more forcefully and aggressively. But there are also some advantages to the hand that O’Malley Dillon has been dealt.
The sudden crash of what had been a robust economy has demolished what had been the chief argument for four more years of Trump. Six in 10 Americans disapprove of the president’s erratic — at times, unhinged — handling of the pandemic. Amid multiple crises, voters have developed a deeper realization that the president’s narcissism and lack of empathy are not personality quirks; they are how he governs.
And of course, trapping the gaffe-prone, hard-to-manage Biden in his Delaware basement has an upside as well. What voters have seen over the past months is an uncharacteristically crisp and disciplined candidate. Biden has generally stayed on script as he rolled out a series of meaty policy proposals to address the problems at hand, including his plan to restore the economy and his strategy to deal with climate change.
The near-flawless debut of his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), is a measure of how well the Biden operation is clicking. It was not the confetti-filled, exuberant extravaganza that a campaign would have planned in ordinary times. But even amid the constraints of the pandemic, the ticket’s first appearance together was a powerful moment, underscoring both the history-making image of a woman of color in the No. 2 spot and the theme of restoring the soul of America, which has been Biden’s most compelling message going back to his announcement video nearly 16 months ago. In the first 24 hours after Harris’s selection was announced, the campaign raised $26 million — a staggering haul that also brought in 150,000 first-time donors.
There are certain to be rocky patches ahead, and no doubt fingers will point at the campaign manager if she doesn’t navigate them well. But right now, Biden’s campaign is reaping the rewards from both Trump’s dismal performance and O’Malley Dillon’s deliberative approach.
Polls show the former vice president building a consistent lead over Trump nationally and in all the states that will matter this fall. He thus far appears immune to the attacks that the president’s campaign has been lobbing from every direction. Biden’s fundraising is also nearing parity with Trump’s.
Meanwhile, O’Malley Dillon has increased the size of Biden’s operation tenfold. Political veterans say the harmony she has fostered with the Democratic National Committee and the party’s liberal allies is smoother than anything seen in decades.
The campaign manager has also brought a young and diverse generation of talent into the former vice president’s famously insular political circle.
Among her hires were Julie Chavez Rodriguez — granddaughter of legendary farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez — to work on support among Hispanics in key states; Karine Jean-Pierre, a Haitian American senior adviser who is moving over to become Harris’s campaign chief of staff; and Obama 2012 veterans Ashley Allison as national coalitions director and Jenn Ridder to focus on battleground states.
All of this reflects O’Malley Dillon’s own background, which is rooted in the prosaic and often inconspicuous work of organizing. The daughter of a school superintendent and a second-grade teacher, she grew up in Franklin, Mass. Her first campaign experience came while she was a student at Tufts University. On a lark, she spent a weekend volunteering for Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort in New Hampshire.
Speaking recently to a group of high school students on a Zoom call, she summed up that life-changing moment with concise precision: “I found the thing I was meant to do.”
Forced by circumstance to build a campaign like no other, O’Malley Dillon now hits the final and surely the roughest three-month stretch. She didn’t expect to be managing all of this from her attic, but amid the turmoil, there has been at least one constant: Jennifer O’Malley Dillon is doing the thing she was meant to do.