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Coronavirus pandemic may have slowed Biden's campaign hiring

Sanders on backing Biden, beating Trump
Sanders on backing Biden, beating Trump 06:17

While many businesses and organizations throughout the country are being forced to downsize amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden is facing unusual challenges in expanding his presidential campaign, now that he is the presumptive Democratic nominee.

The former vice president does have some advantages, in particular, the early united front shown by the party, including recent endorsements by progressive former rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Endorsements like these are often followed by the hiring of some of the vanquished candidates' seasoned campaign staff. But as the public health crisis continues to keep the economy and routine life largely at a standstill, job-seeking Democrats may also have to wait a little longer to join the presidential campaign. 

From the end of March until recently, multiple Democratic operatives described what they called a campaign "hiring freeze" to CBS News. Seven Democratic operatives who inquired about employment opportunities with the Biden campaign for a range of positions told CBS News the guidance they received was that hiring was still on hold. 

All of the operatives had worked for Democratic primary campaigns and were granted anonymity to avoid any potential employment impact. When the primary process ends, even unofficially, it's not unusual for the winning campaign to reach out to senior staff of former rivals to mine for hires ahead of the general election. But several senior staffers on former Democratic campaigns said they were not yet aware of wide-scale plans to bring on their former staffers. 

Some of the operatives say they understand that the pandemic may complicate general election hiring.

At least 478 people were on Biden's payroll by March, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. This figure does not include several of Biden's most senior aides, who appear to be paid directly for consulting or through their eponymous firms. Nor does it include the recent hires of a few high-level staffers including a new campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, and a LGBTQ+ vote director, who will help mobilize the community.

By the end of March, Biden was the clear delegate leader, outpacing Sanders and bringing in $46.7 million in fundraising, according to FEC records, a huge haul that could help grow the campaign staff. 

"We are building onto all aspects of the campaign, especially digital, and have begun to hire additional people," a Biden campaign spokesperson told CBS News when asked about the campaign's hiring plans. 

But scaling up a general election campaign after a primary battle is more than just adding staff to the ranks.

"As the leader of the party in that moment in time, it provides you the opportunity to heal the party. That means making sure you reach out and hire the best and brightest people in rival campaigns," Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, told CBS News.

The Republican campaign veteran recounted transitioning from a "lean and mean" staff of 87 during the primaries to more than 500 during the general election, ultimately overseeing a budget "north of $900 million."

Other former campaign managers who oversaw their campaign's general election hiring say Biden faces an unusual challenge. 

Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CBS News her campaign started hiring in June when Clinton became the presumptive nominee. By the end of the summer Mook said there were around 4,500 staffers nationwide. In 2020, the pandemic has "kind of thrown a wrench" into normal planning, Mook added.

"Biden has had almost a month to begin general election planning at this point. That is just a huge advantage and he is certainly going to need all of that to get caught up with Trump," Mook said. Rhoades, Romney's campaign manager, pointed out that social distancing will have a "big impact." Biden will have to figure out how to shift campaign resources from regular door-knocking and into the digital space.

The pandemic also could transform voter priorities, and some wonder whether Biden's campaign will have  the time to accurately gauge the national mood. 

"It's not going to do any good right now to go door-to-door and start identifying voters," John McCain's 2008 campaign manager Rick Davis, who led the Republican campaign through the 2008 global financial crisis, told CBS News. "Nobody wants to get a call at seven o'clock at night in their home saying 'Are you for Joe Biden or Donald Trump?'" 

As Biden's focus has been primarily on the COVID-19 response and recovery, Davis argued Biden's "wait and see" strategy could pay off long term. 

"Biden has the benefit of a president distracted by a global pandemic," Davis said. "So, if I were giving him advice, I would tell him don't spend a penny. One dollar in October is going to be worth more than one dollar today."

Saving campaign cash by holding off on hiring could help bridge the divide between Biden's bank and Mr. Trump's campaign coffers.

"The power of incumbency is strong," Rhoades told CBS News, reflecting on his campaign's uphill climb against President Obama's 2012 political machine. "And that's something you're always going to have to go up against from a resource standpoint."

"I've had the opportunity to work for an incumbent president in a presidential campaign, and I've had the opportunity to compete against the incumbent president in a presidential campaign. I can just say, man, it's a lot easier and it's a lot better living when you're an incumbent presidential campaign for sure."

For the Trump campaign, that better living is the two-year build up of a joint apparatus merging state party infrastructure with the incumbent president's re-election team. To date, the campaign and Republican National Committee joint field and data operation — called "Trump Victory" by party officials — boasts nearly 800 people in 23 states, including battlegrounds like Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin., And, the Republican party's 2016 operation remained partially intact following Mr. Trump's inauguration, with 5,000 volunteer fellows in place nationwide, according to a senior party official.

Like the Republicans, the Democratic National Committee has been building up a nationwide organization to assist the eventual nominee, especially in competitive states. But the DNC and the Biden campaign have not yet signed a joint-fundraising agreement to coordinate fundraising together.

The Trump campaign and RNC have more than just the power of the incumbency staffing, too. With reported fundraising of $63 million in March, they also possess the power of the pocketbook. With $240 million in the bank, the two groups have raised a record breaking $667 million this re-election cycle, despite down-ballot challenges. Adjusted for inflation, that is $240 million more than President Obama's re-election operation at this point in 2012.

Eleanor Watson contributed reporting to this story. 

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