Biden’s Campaign Manager on Humanity and Healing a Nation

Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, J98, recalled her Tufts softball days and shared lessons from the virtual campaign trail as part of Tisch College’s Distinguished Speaker Series
Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, J98, campaign manager of Joe Biden's winning presidential campaign
“We changed the way we talked,” said Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, J98, of President-elect Joe Biden's campaign. “Instead of putting hard asks in front of them, we tried to meet them in the moment and say, ‘you must be going through a hard time, can we help?’
January 14, 2021

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As campaign manager for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, J98, often told her team, “We can do hard things.” That mantra came from her Tufts Softball coach, the incoming White House deputy chief of staff told an audience at Tufts last night as the first guest in the 2021 Distinguished Speaker Series from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

“Academics matter a great deal, but Tufts Softball mattered a great deal more to me than academics,” said O’Malley Dillon with a grin as she recalled playing for the team. “It’s hard to put into words the power and the impact it had on the person I am and the ability I’ve had to take this journey. I would not be doing what I’m doing today without Tufts.”

On her first day as Biden’s campaign manager, it was clear they’d have to do many hard things. With COVID-19 spreading across the country, she told the team of staffers and volunteers that they had to work remotely, and they ended up never working in person again—though they didn’t know that would be the case at the time.

“The added challenge for me as the manager coming in was that we had to go through a transformation from a primary campaign to a general election campaign, running against a sitting incumbent during a pandemic, without having the opportunity to meet each other, work together, or have the tools that we rely on traditionally for campaigns,” she said.

During the hour-long event, O’Malley Dillon discussed many aspects of the Biden campaign, including their strategy for getting to 270 electoral votes and mending a divided nation. Here are four takeaways from the discussion, which was moderated by Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, Dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. Watch it here:

1. Humanity and safety were hallmarks of the campaign. Though the campaign staff operated remotely, the essence of campaigning stayed the same: trying to reach people, make a connection, and find common ground, said O’Malley Dillon.

“We changed the way we talked,” she said. “We talked to people about how they were doing. Instead of putting hard asks in front of them, we tried to meet them in the moment and say, ‘we’re here, you must be going through a hard time, we want to stay connected, can we help?’”

That’s normally unheard of in campaigning, where time is a precious asset, she said. “To not make those hard asks was a tough call but the right call, and it paid out with our hypothesis that if we built that foundation, we could come back to it as we got closer to the election.”

Biden always had a clear sense of why he was in the presidential race—often referred to as the battle for the soul of the nation. O’Malley Dillon said to Biden, that means healing, the importance of bipartisanship, and working together.

2. Young people were critical to the campaign’s success, not just as voters but also as volunteers to the Biden campaign. Biden spoke to issues that young people care about, O’Malley Dillon said, including racial equity, climate change, and the economic crisis. The key was making sure they weren’t talking to young people, but instead making them a part of the conversation.

“President-elect Biden will have the most progressive agenda in the history of our country,” she said. “We have to make sure young people see, in any leadership, that they’re part of it. They’re not on the outside, they don’t have to wait their turn to lead or have a voice. We saw that time and time again in this campaign.”

3. She’s better at her job because she’s a mom. O’Malley Dillon follows the Ruth Bader Ginsberg school of thought: You can have it all, but not all at once. As the first female manager of a winning Democratic presidential campaign, the mother of three children she said she couldn’t juggle work and family without a supportive partner and a boss who insisted on putting family first.

She recalled a weekly staff meeting over Zoom during the campaign, where hundreds of people would join from home due to COVID. “You saw kids, dads with babies, dogs, people taking care of elders—you saw life,” she said. “It broke this idea that you shouldn’t mix family with work, or it’s not professional to have your kids around.”

4. They didn’t rely on the “blue wall.” O’Malley Dillon’s strategy for getting the required 270 electoral votes to win the election was to build multiple pathways and expand the electoral map so they didn’t have to rely on the so-called blue wall of states that normally vote for the Democratic candidate. With this approach, the campaign brought new states into play for Democrats, such as Arizona and Georgia.

“Fundamentally, we thought it was critical to reach not just one type of voter or audience. We knew to be successful in this environment we had to build customized state campaigns to make them as competitive as possible and to make sure that we kept as many states on the map as long as possible,” she said. “This changed the map for the future and for the race in 2024.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.