Amid all the noise of an election involving Donald Trump – all the inflammatory tweets and grim Facebook posts – a slew of ads have managed to break through.
There is the one of the American president who goes down a ramp who declares that the president “is not well”. There is the one who whispers about Trump’s “loyalty problem” in the White House, in his campaign and in his family.
There is the epic Mourning in America that remakes the 1984 commercial, which defines Reagan’s election, turning sunny suburbs into a grim national portrait of the pandemic and recession. On Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, these three ads alone have racked up more than 35 million views.
Project Lincoln, led by a group of renegade Republican political consultants, crystallized one of the main narratives of the 2020 campaign in a way few other political advertisements have had in previous cycles.
His brutal attack commercials work alongside the speedboat veterans vs. John Kerry in 2004, Willie Horton’s commercial against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and the Daisy commercial against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Their reward? Contempt for independent media, mistrust across the political spectrum, and a recent spate of severely negative coverage from pro-Trump media.
Disdain seems to be the consensus view of the experts. Atlantic magazine called their ads “personally abusive, overworked, unnecessarily salacious and riddled with non-sequels.” The New Republic examined what it called Project Lincoln’s “viral impotence”, suggesting it could “not persuade voters of anything.” Even the Washington Post said that most of their ads “were not aimed at persuading disgruntled Republicans but simply to sting the president.”
But this is not how the project managers see their work or their purpose. In their launch manifesto, which was chronicled in The New York Times, the founders said their goal was to “defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the polls,” including his Republican supporters in Congress.
To that end, they said their efforts were aimed at “persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents in swing states and districts” to defeat Trump and elect congressional majorities opposed to Trumpism.
In practice, that means organizing anti-Trump Republicans in eight swing states – including Florida, Ohio, Arizona, and North Carolina – to organize virtual town halls and write postcards to Republican neighbors and friends. It also means organizing surrogates to speak to those voters in their home states and cities.
“These are Republicans they know – former representatives and mayors,” said Sarah Lenti, executive director of the Lincoln Project. “People like Rick Snyder in Michigan who will come and say, ‘We support Project Lincoln and support Joe Biden this cycle.’ It gives people the opportunity to say, “Our leaders are doing this, so it’s good for us too. “”
Along with the prominent surrogates and commercials, there is a grassroots effort to organize women, veterans and evangelicals to persuade Republicans to abandon the president who dominates their party.
“There are some voters we’re not going to move – voters with one right to life question – and that’s OK,” Lenti said.
“We’re looking at 3-5% of Republicans in some states. They tend to be more educated than not. Over 40, and the demographic split is around 50/50, maybe a little towards men. We are also seeing a pull with some evangelicals, and these are generally older and less educated.
This slice of disgruntled Republicans is the target of announcements such as Mourning in America: People who are old enough to remember the original from three decades ago are also old enough to be at greatest risk for coronavirus. “Under the leadership of Donald Trump,” says the narrator, “our country is weaker, sicker and poorer.”
It was the first advertisement that sparked Trump enough to tweet about the group two months ago: a presidential explosion that transformed the profile and resources of the Lincoln Project.
“A group of RINO Republicans who failed 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, then got badly beaten by me, a political beginner, 4 years ago, copied (without imagination ) the concept of a Ronald Reagan ad, “Morning in America,” doing everything possible to get revenge for all of their many failures, “Trump tweeted.
If Trump was truly tormented by the Reagan reference, the irony is striking. Trump himself stole, without attribution, Reagan’s 1980 slogan: Make America Great Again.
For the most part, Trump’s tweets have focused on the individual project founders who trouble him so deeply. Given their background in GOP politics, his firing as Rinos – Republicans in name only – means there are very few Republicans who can pass Trump’s test.
The founders of The Lincoln Project include John Weaver, who was a political strategist for George HW Bush in 1988 and 1992, as well as John McCain’s strategist for a decade; Reed Galen, who worked on the two Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004; Steve Schmidt, who led the McCain campaign in 2008 and worked in the Bush White House and campaigned before that; and George Conway, a Conservative lawyer whose wife Kellyanne works as an advisor to Trump in the West Wing.
The pushback did not stop there. The Conservative Club for Growth has made the extraordinary decision to create and run its own ad attacking Project Lincoln. He portrayed the group as a bunch of failed strategists trying to make a quick buck by hating not only Trump but the American people.
This month, they were joined by two success stories in the Murdoch-owned New York Post, accusing the founders of “Russian ties and tax problems” and of secretly wanting to work for Trump. These can be confusing lines of attack for Trump supporters who have grown numb over ties with Russia, tax issues, and have a high opinion of those who want to work for Trump.
For Democratic ad creators, the work of Project Lincoln has earned their respect, although questions remain about its impact. “The ads struck a chord with progressives and activists who see the bill as validating everything we’ve said about Trump, but now voiced by the people we usually campaign against,” said Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic strategist and founder of the Obama and Clinton campaigns. “The question is whether independent voters, moderate Republicans and white suburban voters will respond as well.
“If the goal is modest – to move a point or two to the right states with the right people – I think they can help win the election. Remember: Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016 by less than a point in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. So even small gains can make the difference between a second term for Trump and a new day in America.
But for some ads, it’s clear that they’re engaged in a battle to get the attention of a singular target.
“Some of these ads have an audience of just one,” Lenti says. “It has always been part of the strategy. Because every time he sends a message, spits out grievances, he’s not campaigning. The idea is to get him the message over and over and over again. It bothers him. We hear people inside the White House saying that they want us to go. But we won’t be leaving.
Trump’s concern about Project Lincoln has only filled his coffers. After seeing Mourning In America, Trump left Marine One and spoke to reporters before boarding Air Force One.
“They shouldn’t call it the Lincoln Project,” he complained, after taking more shots at its founders. “It’s not fair to Abraham Lincoln, a great president. They should call it the Losers Project.
Instead of turning them into losers, Trump helped raise $ 2 million for his nemesis. The group raised more than $ 20 million at the end of June, well ahead of its goal of raising $ 30 million by the end of the electoral cycle. Most of that money came after Trump’s attacks in May, with small donors making up the bulk of his supporters: the average donation is around $ 50.
Now the group has enough funds to take on Trump supporters in tight Senate races. This week, it made its biggest advertising purchase – $ 4 million in Alaska, Maine and Montana – as the expanded battlefield underscores its major focus.
“I don’t think this wing of the party is going away,” Lenti said. “Our job is not to reform the Republican Party. Our job is to end Trump and Trumpism.