The Bloomberg-owned firm Hawkfish, which ran the presidential campaign of Mike Bloomberg, is in serious talks to serve the presidential campaign of Joe Biden, according to sources with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations. Along with Biden’s campaign, the firm is courting a wide swath of other progressive and Democratic organizations, opening up the possibility of Bloomberg gaining significant control over the party’s technology and data infrastructure.
The digital consulting firm has had little political experience outside of the Bloomberg campaign, a trial by fire in which the former New York City mayor burned through nearly $1 billion in less than four months. Hawkfish, which Bloomberg founded in 2019 to be the operational backbone of his campaign, is not yet able to sell its track record or quality of service, since it has no other major clients and few, if any, minor ones.
But instead it comes with other enticements to clients. Democratic operatives who’ve been pitched by Hawkfish say that the firm is able to offer extraordinarily low prices by operating at a loss subsidized by Bloomberg, whose wealth dangles as an added benefit that could come with signing the firm. A Hawkfish insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize employment, confirmed that the company is willing to operate at a loss in order to grab control of the party infrastructure, explaining that the firm hopes to offer a fee that would be small enough to entice the Biden campaign while passing muster with federal regulators. (If a firm offers services for less than fair market value, the discount is considered under campaign finance laws to be an in-kind contribution, and thus subject to legal limits depending on the entity collecting the contribution. A presidential campaign can’t accept more than $2,800 from a single individual per election, or any contributions at all from a company.)
“When the objective isn’t money but control, $18 million is incredibly cheap to become the center of gravity for all Democratic political information, which we would be if both Biden and [House Democrats] have to come through us,” the source said, referring to the amount of money the Bloomberg campaign transferred to the Democratic Party last month, in a reversal of his earlier pledge to create a Super PAC in support of the party’s nominee. “And in the current environment, the public sees this as generosity.”
In modern campaigning, control of voter data and technology is everything. Currently, the Democratic National Committee houses the party data in a tense, underfunded, and inefficient alliance with 50 state parties. But all candidates have equal access to the data, including the voter file. The party does not bar challengers to incumbents, or members of Congress who cross leadership, for instance, from accessing that voter file. But in private hands, the most up-to-date data could be withheld as a disciplinary tool against renegade candidates and lawmakers, or offered as a reward to loyalists. Winning the Biden campaign contract would give Hawkfish an opportunity to dramatically grow its data acquisition operation. Without it, Hawkfish is a big firm with no big client. Hawkfish and its leadership did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Biden campaign declined to comment.
Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which recruits progressive challengers to incumbents, said that Bloomberg’s firm running the party’s data operation would send the wrong signal and could have long-term, damaging repercussions. “The idea of the Democratic nominee potentially rewarding Bloomberg’s firm with this contract is disturbing,” he said. “We shouldn’t be the party of helping billionaires amass huge amounts of mega-data on voters that allow them to keep accruing obscene amounts of power in our democracy.”
Another critical client Hawkfish is seeking out, leadership has told staff, is House Majority PAC, the Super PAC for House Democratic leadership, which is allied with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Bloomberg gave House Majority PAC $10 million as recently as last December. A House Majority PAC official confirmed the organization is in talks with Hawkfish, but said that nothing had been finalized.
Bloomberg gave $20 million to Senate Majority PAC in 2018, and Hawkfish plans to pitch the organization soon to become a client, company leaders told staff in a call on Monday, according to Hawkfish sources.
On that call, company leaders said the firm was also actively pitching a suite of other Democratic and progressive groups. They named Voto Latino, which they said aims to register 1 million new Latino voters in battleground states ahead of the upcoming election, as one potential client. Bloomberg in March gave Voto Latino $500,000 for that very effort.
The other firms being pitched by Hawkfish include former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s group working on voting rights, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee; former first lady Michelle Obama’s group When We All Vote; a climate coalition that includes Environmental Defense Fund Action and the League of Conservation Voters; Galvanize, which targets women in battleground states who likely voted for President Donald Trump; and the Democratic Governors Association. (In pitch meetings, according to officials who’ve been on the receiving end, Hawkfish cites Obama’s When We All Vote as a client it’s done work for, but that entailed a single Virginia state legislative special election, prior to Bloomberg announcing his presidential bid.)
“It seems clear what they’re trying to do, which is a takeover of the data and tech infrastructure of the party.”
Bloomberg has given millions to Environmental Defense Fund to fund activism around natural gas. “Here’s the truth on natural gas,” Bloomberg said in a 2012 statement accompanying the launch of a yearslong grant, part of the more than $100 million he’s spent on organizations fighting climate change. “The environmentalists who oppose all fracking are wrong, and the drillers who claim that regulation will kill the industry are wrong. What we need to do is make sure that the gas is extracted carefully and in the right places, and that has to be done through strong, responsible regulation. And that’s what our work with EDF is all about.”
One Democratic operative pitched by the company said that Hawkfish officials made clear that the project was ideological and not seen as a business opportunity, with the goal of defeating Trump and pushing the party “in a direction that reflects the values of Mike Bloomberg.”
“It seems clear what they’re trying to do, which is a takeover of the data and tech infrastructure of the party,” the operative said.
Bloomberg’s political views, he himself has acknowledged, do not line up with those of most Democrats. “It’s just not gonna happen on a national level for somebody like me starting where I am, unless I was willing to change all my views and go on what CNN called an apology tour,” Bloomberg said at an event in New York, just months before launching his campaign with an apology for his stop-and-frisk policy. “My charm, if you will, is that I say what I believe and do it. Unfortunately, some people don’t like that, and you can measure how much,” Bloomberg added, putting his ceiling at a third of the Democratic electorate. If anything, he had overestimated his support and was knocked out after a dismal performance on Super Tuesday. He has since endorsed Biden, after saying that his goal in the primary was to prevent Sen. Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination.
Biden is now working to court progressives. On Thursday, as part of that effort, he proposed lowering the Medicare age to 60 and canceling some student debt. His pitch to supporters of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, however, could be undercut by an operational alliance with Bloomberg’s Hawkfish. “Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” Warren said the first time Bloomberg joined the debate stage, famously ending his campaign on the spot. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” Sanders called his wealth “grotesque” and warned, “He thinks he can buy this election.”
Buying the election turned out not to be possible in 2020 for Bloomberg, but his campaign bought an unprecedented amount of consumer and voter data along the way, data that Hawkfish hopes to mix with what it could acquire by running Biden’s presidential campaign, giving it more dominance over the party’s voter file, according to sources both inside the company and those who’ve been pitched by them. The campaigns and organizations being offered a free lunch by Hawkfish, however, have little ability to gauge whether the firm will be able to deliver — or whether they’ll get, so to speak, what they pay for. Indeed, it has not gone unnoticed among potential clients that Bloomberg’s own organizations, such as Everytown for Gun Safety, are not employing Hawkfish.
The firm is led by veterans of Silicon Valley without much in the way of political experience. It’s headed by Gary Briggs, formerly chief marketing officer at Facebook. Another top official is Jeff Glueck, the former CEO of Foursquare, joined by Josh Mendelsohn, who founded Engine Advocacy, the lobby group for big tech. The three men were joined on the Monday staff call by Maia Johnson, who served on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Hawkfish recently brought in Tim Castree, one of New York’s top ad executives, to be a senior official at the firm.
To Biden’s inner circle, which consists largely of people in their 60s and 70s, the fact that Hawkfish is led by Silicon Valley honchos may be appealing. They ran Foursquare and worked for Facebook? They sold a company to Google? They must be experts. And the price tag would be enticing to any campaign manager looking to stretch scarce resources. But Democratic digital infrastructure is its own beast, and learning it on the fly in the heat of a presidential campaign would be a challenge.
Hawkfish’s work for clients would entail various aspects of voter targeting, fundraising, persuasion, and turning out the vote. Though the firm hopes to do fundraising for Democrats, until last week it had no relationship with ActBlue, the platform on which that happens, when Hawkfish officials LinkedIn-bombed ActBlue staffers to set up a meeting. Because Bloomberg raised literally no money for his campaign, Hawkfish had no previous need for ActBlue. An ActBlue spokesperson confirmed that the first interaction with Hawkfish came last week. “We work with the largest actors in the progressive space, but we haven’t had a chance to engage with Hawkfish yet,” said Caleb Cade. “However, they arranged a meeting with us last week, and while they are new to the fundraising space, we look forward to exploring ways to integrate with their workflow.”
What Hawkfish has to sell on the quality front is what it accomplished with the Bloomberg campaign. Aside from its controversial stunts — putting Bloomberg’s face on a meatball or having him salivate over Big Gay Ice Cream — the firm faced internal challenges as well. A consulting firm with the major objective of data acquisition sometimes has incentives that can diverge from those of the campaign, and the company during the Bloomberg campaign focused heavily on acquiring individual-level data for Hawkfish datasets, according to operatives familiar with the operation. One much-remembered example, multiple sources said, was Hawkfish’s expensive testing of whether people liked singers Justin Bieber or Katy Perry in the lead-up to Super Tuesday. Such a test might yield interesting results for a corporate advertising campaign, but it had little political value. As long as a message got clicks and comments — building data for the firm — more money would be put behind it, regardless of whether those were useful political engagements.
Hawkfish leadership told staff that they are cautiously optimistic they’ll win the contract, citing the limited cash on hand the Biden campaign has to spend on the primary.
The Biden campaign, Hawkfish leaders told staff on Monday, has told Hawkfish that it will make a decision on whether to hire a technology or data firm by April 15, though the Biden campaign declined to confirm that deadline or comment more generally. Hawkfish leadership told staff on Monday that they are cautiously optimistic they’ll win the contract, citing the limited cash on hand the Biden campaign has to spend on the primary, which is not yet legally over. One Hawkfish leader referred to the firm’s “efficiency” as an advantage it has with the cash-strapped Biden campaign.
Bloomberg’s 2020 campaign disclosures list more than $40 million paid to Hawkfish, though that doesn’t include the hundreds of millions in television advertising Hawkfish was involved in but that other companies were paid for. Hawkfish to date has largely outsourced its work, serving as an umbrella firm that signs subcontracts with three main firms: Assembly, which does media buying; Horizon Media, which creates content; and BlueLabs, one of the major Democratic data firms.
The open question is just how much of Bloomberg’s campaign spending helped to build Hawkfish’s capacity and how much it still relies on BlueLabs and other vendors to do the work. Because the campaign spent massively acquiring consumer data that is cost-prohibitive to other Democratic firms, it could now be in a privileged position. According to Hawkfish leadership, it is paying off, telling staff this week that they felt well-positioned to win the Voto Latino contract because it has the names of 9 million more unregistered Latinos in its database than exist in Civis, the database the firm has been using since its launch. The next question, though, is whether the disruptors at Hawkfish know how to leverage that list and convert those names into registered voters. It might be harder than it looks.