"The Operators” is a series profiling influential political aides on Capitol Hill, in the Trump administration and on closely watched campaigns about the behind-the-scenes work they do.
He’s the guy who helped coin “Joementum” – the cheesy, but also suitable, catchphrase that summed up Joe Biden’s political revival a little over a month ago.
As it turned out, TJ Ducklo’s assessment of Biden’s momentum was real. Or at least, it became real. Following the former veep’s Super Tuesday sweep, rival after rival dropped out. The endorsements piled up. The party steadily closed ranks until, eventually, even Bernie Sanders was compelled to step back.
Now, Ducklo is responsible for keeping the “Joementum” going.
As national press secretary for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign, the 31-year-old strategist is one of the lead message-makers in the 2020 race – the job of a lifetime, and not bad for a recent career change.
“This is my first campaign, and it’s one I’ve believed in every day since it launched a year ago, but even more today,” Ducklo, who worked in media relations before making the switch to politics, told Fox News.
The glory of clinching the nomination didn’t exactly pan out as planned. Even before the primaries began, he was dealt a Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis. But as he continued his work with the campaign, helping steer through Biden’s initial electoral collapse and eventual triumphant comeback, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything again.
As it essentially pushed the presidential race to the news cycle backburner and rendered any and all campaign events virtual, Ducklo’s job has changed.
He’s now helping to run the campaign’s press shop from his apartment in Philadelphia, just blocks away from the Biden campaign headquarters.
“I’ve replaced morning Starbucks with morning Nespresso from my kitchen slash desk slash office,” Ducklo said, noting that he spends the first hour of his day reading news clips and watching morning shows.
But a career in the media industry he’s now trying to influence gives him foundation and insight.
Before joining the Biden campaign as national press secretary, he worked in media relations for NBC News, Bloomberg News and for Showtime’s “The Circus.”
“I am an aggressive consumer of media,” he said. “I watch unhealthy amounts of cable news.”
The path forward for the campaign remains unclear as Biden’s team has, at times, struggled to break through a news cycle that’s been so heavily dominated by coronavirus coverage, with Trump himself often commanding viewers on a daily basis with his sometimes hours long briefings.
Biden’s campaign has put the candidate out on multiple platforms, including podcasts, virtual events and, recently, an uptick in television appearances. But social distancing restrictions have deprived the campaign of the ability to capitalize on what would be normally huge moments after clinching the nomination – including endorsements from Barack Obama, Sanders and others.
But even with a country on lockdown, Ducklo remains deeply engaged with the press.
Ducklo said each morning, the communications, digital and research teams for the Biden campaign have a call to talk through the day’s priorities.
“Then, I will spend most of my day talking to reporters, answering questions for their stories and getting them the information they need to report accurately on the Vice President and the campaign,” Ducklo said. “That’s fundamentally what I’m doing all day every day—helping to communicate the Vice President’s message and make sure our campaign is represented fairly and accurately in the press.”
And Ducklo is applying the same tenacity and vigor he typically brings to bear against a political foe to his battle with lung cancer.
“I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in mid-December. It’s something you’re never expecting. And I definitely wasn’t. It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Ducklo told Fox News. “To say that my colleagues—and especially my teammates on the comms team—have been there for me while dealing with this would be an extreme understatement.”
“With the exception of Kate [Bedingfield, the deputy campaign manager and communications director], who I’ve known for almost a decade and who is like a big sister to me, these are all people I didn’t know a year ago,” Ducklo explained. “But the day-to-day battles of campaign life make you become close quickly, and they are all so important to me now, and have been a powerful source of strength. They’ve had my back every step of the way.”
And so did the former vice president. Days after his diagnosis, Biden called.
“Vice President Biden called my mom to check in,” Ducklo said. “We were actually waiting to see a doctor, who came in during the call and listened to part of it. It meant a tremendous amount to me and my family that he did that, and his and Dr. Biden’s support have meant a lot.”
But the diagnosis didn’t stop Ducklo. Once he learned his treatment plan, he said he was “extremely eager to get back to work.”
And so he did. Just weeks later, he was back out on the campaign trail, preparing for the Iowa caucuses.
“It might sound stupid, but I think there’s a reason this happened while I am working for Vice President Biden. No one knows the horrors of this disease better than him.”
Biden’s eldest son Beau Biden, in 2015, died of brain cancer at just 46 years old.
'VP Biden talks about finding purpose to help overcome grief. I think this campaign has given me purpose, and helped me power through a dark and scary time.'
“He has said as president he will stop at nothing to cure cancer as we know it,” Ducklo said of Biden. “I’m pretty proud of that promise, and it makes me work harder every day to help him get elected.”
Ducklo told Fox News that his treatment is going well so far, and that “everything is moving in the right direction.”
"VP Biden talks about finding purpose to help overcome grief. I think this campaign has given me purpose, and helped me power through a dark and scary time," he said.
Now, Ducklo has taken that “purpose” and strength and brought it to the forefront of his political career, as his boss is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
“We had a pretty scrappy mentality as a team since the beginning,” Ducklo said of the campaign. “The vice president entered the race as the frontrunner a year ago, and that’s meant we’ve had a target on our back from day one—not only from Democratic competitors but from Donald Trump.”
He added: “It’s easy to forget now, in the midst of a global pandemic, but the president got himself impeached because he was scared to face Joe Biden in a general election.”
Ducklo recalled the “negative ads” that the Trump campaign began running in Iowa beginning last fall.
“I guess it’s fair now to give the president some credit,” Ducklo said. “He knew then what everyone else knows now, starting in the days after Super Tuesday, that Joe Biden could bring together the Democratic Party and lead a united and extremely formidable campaign against him this fall.”
The Biden campaign, according to Ducklo, was “dynamic,” and remembered that there were times where it felt like they were running a primary and a general election at the same time.
“We were taking incoming from all sides,” he said. “Then, obviously, we had less than ideal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Biden, ahead of the early primary contests, was the unrivaled front-runner, but once the nominating calendar kicked off with Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden fell behind, with lackluster fourth- and fifth-place showings.
None of which, according to Ducklo, deterred Biden, or his spirit.
"It’s said a lot that Joe Biden’s superpower is empathy—his ability to connect with people, listen to their stories and hear and see them for who they are,” Ducklo said. “I’ve seen that firsthand on the campaign trail.”
Ducklo described one sleep-deprived night ahead of the New Hampshire primary, where Biden spoke at an evening event, and then worked the rope line.
“He spoke with every person who had come and wanted to say hello, take a selfie, etc.,” Ducklo said. “One of the people he met that night was Brayden—a young kid who sometimes stuttered when he spoke, which is something the vice president also struggled with as a kid.”
“At that point, it was late, and none of us, including the vice president, had really slept the night before. It was also a particularly brutal day for us in the press,” Ducklo said. “No one was satisfied with how we had performed in Iowa and the coverage was…not awesome.”
But Biden invited Brayden back to the hold room where the staff had been patiently waiting during the event.
"I’ll just say we were ready to leave,” he said. “But, here comes the VP with Brayden, he wanted to show him a copy of his speech from that night, which the vice president marked up in advance to space out when he pauses between phrases, a tactic he learned as a kid when he was overcoming his stutter.”
“He sat with Brayden for at least 20 minutes—probably more—and showed him the speech and talks,” Ducklo said. “Nothing mattered for the vice president in that moment—the previous night’s result, the press coverage, how late and tired he was—but Brayden.”
He added: “It was pretty incredible to watch.”
Ducklo and the team eventually got sleep that night.
“When we got around to South Carolina, we had been campaigning for 10 months, but it felt a little like 10 years,” Ducklo said.
But it was South Carolina that changed everything for team Biden.
“I was in Charleston the day after the debate when Congressman Clyburn endorsed the Vice President,” Ducklo said. “It was a raw, emotional and deeply powerful speech from the congressman. You felt his passion in the room, and folks at home did as well when all cable networks took his remarks live.”
“A few days later, I was back in Philadelphia the night when Joe Biden won South Carolina by 30 points,” he said. “The whole office gathered around where the comms team sits to watch his speech.”
Ducklo recalled Biden’s speech that night, after sweeping the South Carolina Primary.
“For those of who’ve been knocked out, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign!” Ducklo quoted Biden as saying. “The HQ went nuts. Joe Biden has been defying the odds and proving the haters wrong since he got elected to the Senate at age 29.”
“47 years later, he had done it again,” Ducklo said. “And it was a special feeling to realize it that night and be part of it.”
After winning South Carolina, Biden swept Super Tuesday, winning primaries in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Maine, giving him 10 victories to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ four.
Since then, the Democratic primary race has dwindled, with all former candidates, including Sanders, dropping out and rallying their support behind Biden.
As the campaign, and the country, grapples with the challenges of the pandemic, Ducklo called for a different kind of leadership.
"This moment of crisis for our country calls for a president who can meet this unprecedented challenge -- who has the experience and competent leadership to make government work for its people, and the compassion and empathy to lead," Ducklo said.
"That president is Joe Biden, and we are confident that in November, Americans will agree."