Unite the Country

Interview with Steve Schale.


Steve Schale, CEO of Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC formed in Oct. 2019, provided some observations in a March 7, 2021 email interview with Democracy in Action.  During the early primary campaign, Unite the Country advertising played an key role keeping Biden in the mix.  By the general election it was one of many pro-Biden groups; according to data from AdImpact, between May 1 and Nov. 3 it spent about $13.4 million, including $5.3 million in Pennsylvania, $3.1 million in Wisconsin and $2.1 million in Michigan and $1.4 million in Arizona. 

We operated under two theories:  

1.  The race wasn't about Donald Trump - instead, it was about reassuring voters about Joe Biden.  Granted, this was initially pretty counter to the views of most, but our research in late March/early April was pretty clear: there was a majority of voters in swing states that did not want to vote for Trump again.  This didn't mean they wouldn't -  just that they didn't want to.  They had questions about Biden - many people didn't really know his history, or the work he did as VP (we ran into the same issues in the primary). So we felt as though we needed to define Biden early - because frankly, we believed the Trump people would see it the same way, and try to define Biden before the hard side could get on their feet.  In the end, when you look at how the campaign and all the outside groups operated, it was clear this became the governing theory of the case.

2.  The campaign would eventually raise enough money to drive their own message, so our best money spent was whatever we could spend at the time.   We didn't look at the election as a race from E-Day backwards - we looked at it from whatever day we were at going forward.   Our sense - which proved right - is the grassroots was so amped up about Trump that Biden would eventually raise more than they could spend on TV - and in the end our dollars late would just be miniscule in comparison.  On the flip-side, we knew they needed to get on their feet, so whatever we spent now would only help build their foundation.  

We viewed the map like everyone else, and believed, as did everyone, that the fastest path to 270 was through the upper midwest.  We invested our TV spending with a focus on the mid-sized tv markets with the highest share of persuadable voters, based both on modeling and on actual electoral history.  We leaned in on telling the Biden personal story - the economic record - and his vision going forward.  We also played in Arizona as part of a consortium of groups around his COVID relief plans.  We relied almost exclusively on positive ads, and our ads in testing were among the most effective.

Outside of that, we ran several concurrent digital programs, focused on suburban women and on African American voters.  These programs, by and large followed the same narrative, but whereas our TV was more front-loaded, our digital effort was highly targeted based on modeling and ran from mid-June until Election Day.  With these cohorts, we wanted to have a longer conversation about the Biden plans for getting America going again after COVID.

Elaboration provided in March 10 email.

We tried to fill gaps as we saw them, or focus on audiences on we felt our "unite the country" brand would help.  A lot of outside groups had their own programs - we viewed our role as more complimentary than program-based.  We wanted to make sure the Biden side of the argument was always in the conversation.

In terms of digital, we felt there were very specific audiences we had to win, particularly in WI, PA, and MI.  Digital allowed us to have a longer conversation.

Our TV in the general had two goals:  One, we wanted to spend what we had, when we could.  Again, our basic theory of the case was the campaign would have more money as the campaign went on, so the more we could do early, the more we helped.  So rather than have a 20 week effort from the election back, we tried to spend what we could, when we could, in key markets where we saw gaps in spending that we could fill - particularly when there was no positive Biden on air.  For example, we spent heavier leading into August, because at that point, the campaign wasn't up at the robust levels they had later.   We spent later when we raised more late.

See also:
Max Greenwood.  "Biden super PAC launches $10 million campaign ahead of Democratic convention."  The Hill, May 8, 2020.