National Democratic groups have begun a television bombardment, spending millions of dollars on swing state attack ads aiming to blunt President Donald Trump’s dominance of the news cycle as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen.
Trump’s approval rating has increased slightly since the beginning of the pandemic, according to both public polls and private surveys conducted by operatives in both parties who are scrambling to figure out how a pandemic without modern precedent and an economic recession will change the electoral playing field.
“Democrats have to take this seriously because Trump’s right-wing communication channels are going to be amplifying him as a hero and giving him a ticker-tape parade no matter what happens,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
With millions of Americans homebound, Trump’s daily briefings on the pandemic have dominated the airwaves in a way that surpasses even what his rallies did during the 2016 presidential race. At least 10.4 million people watched his briefing on Tuesday, according to Nielsen ratings, while another 4.4 million tuned in to a Fox News-hosted town hall on the crisis.
Both events gave Trump nearly an hour of free air time to present his image of the federal government’s response to the crisis, including a far-fetched promise to end most social distancing measures by Easter, which is in mid-April. Trump has also used these briefings to attack the media and his likely 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“My administration and myself will deliver for you as we have in the past,” Trump promised his substantial audience on Tuesday.
PACRONYM, a Democratic super PAC focused on digital ads, has spent more than $500,000 running ads on coronavirus since late last month. American Bridge, another super PAC, has also run digital ads. But the amount of spending on the issue has increased dramatically in the past week as the reality of the crisis has set in for both operatives and everyday Americans. The television blitz started this week, with ads from Unite The Country, a super PAC formed to support Biden’s run for the presidency, and Priorities USA Action.
The ad from Priorities, the largest Democratic super PAC, has made the biggest splash so far. The 30-second spot contrasts public statements from Trump playing down the severity of the pandemic with the growing number of cases in the United States.
On Wednesday, Trump’s campaign sent a letter to television stations in swing states calling the ad “false” ― the campaign argues Trump never called COVID-19 a “hoax” ― and demanding it be pulled from the airwaves. The resulting controversy helped the ad go viral, with more than 10 million views on Twitter alone. Priorities USA decided to spend an additional $600,000 to air the spot in Arizona. It was already spending $6 million to air the ad in in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Super PACs can both accept and spend unlimited amounts of money, provided they don’t directly coordinate with a candidate or campaign.
“Trump’s Super PAC and now Trump’s campaign are resorting to desperate threats to keep Americans from hearing the truth about his failed COVID response that has put us all at risk,” said Patrick McHugh, the group’s executive director. “The ads are still running and Priorities USA will continue ensuring voters hear the truth.”
So far, American Bridge’s ads on the crisis have only run on digital platforms, while the group’s television ads ― which focus on limiting Trump’s edge among white working-class voters ― are focused on health care. But the group plans to continue polling in recent weeks, and says its online testing shows the digital ads already increasing Democratic enthusiasm and damaging Trump’s image.
“We’ve got a president spouting dangerous disinformation in the midst of a pandemic he set the stage for with his incompetence,” said Bradley Beychok, the group’s president. “Democrats can’t afford to let Donald Trump off the hook, and we’re going to keep holding him accountable for his failed leadership.”
The Democratic ads have aimed to limit Trump’s advantage as Biden struggles to break into the news cycle amidst the pandemic and an all-but-over Democratic presidential primary. While the Biden campaign has increased his presence ― they’ve turned his family recreation room into a makeshift studio, enabling the candidate to hold press briefings and television interviews from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and have launched a podcast and newsletter ― Biden’s ability to insert himself into the news cycle is limited, since he has no official role in crafting the government’s response to the crisis.
“I’m chomping at the bit. I wish I were in the Senate being able to impact on some of these things,” Biden said during a press briefing on Wednesday. “But I am where I am.”
There’s not much point to running Trump ads during the Trump television program. a senior GOP strategist
Republicans, meanwhile, seem torn over how ― and whether ― to respond to the Democratic ad blitz. The Trump campaign has been reluctant to directly attack Biden with paid media during the epidemic, and some GOP operatives have suggested Trump’s frequently criticized super PAC, American First Action, should start airing its own ads bashing Biden or boosting the presidency.
Others are skeptical more spending is needed, noting Trump’s dominance over the news media. (America First Action has just $18 million on hand, according to campaign finance filings, far less than combined resources of the Democratic PACs.)
“There’s not much point to running Trump ads during the Trump television program,” one senior GOP strategist said.
Steven Law, who heads Senate Leadership Fund, the major super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said responses from Trump and Congress are likely to define the election ― and erase much of the political activity of the past year, giving Trump an opportunity to reach voters who have been skeptical of his leadership for most of his presidency.
“It’s clearly reaching people who have, for the better part of the last three years, not been supportive of this president,” he said.
“I would assume this is going to be top of mind for voters for the next five to six months,” Law added. “This is different from impeachment. That was an event that didn’t impact a single actual human being outside of Washington.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday, for instance, found Trump’s approval rating at 48% among all adults, with a 46% disapproval rating. But the same poll also found 58% of adults believe Trump didn’t act fast enough to deal with the crisis, compared to 38% who believe he moved at the right speed.
Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the results of actions from the president and members of both parties in Congress would essentially be un-spinnable: Workers will lose their jobs or they won’t, the virus will spread or it won’t, the number of deaths will climb or it won’t.
This has Democrats confident that Trump’s approval rating spike ― which pollsters note is already smaller than the typical “rally around the flag” boost received by presidents in moments of crisis ― will be temporary.
“Most of the uptick is coming from Democrats, but most Democrats remain unfavorable to him in an election,” Ferguson said. “They merely have a hope, probably a false hope, of his ability to handle the crisis.”
And some voters may already be giving up that hope: Navigator Research, a project of two major Democratic polling firms, has been running a daily tracking survey on the pandemic. For their survey covering March 20 to March 23, 52% of registered voters approved of how Trump was handling the crisis, while just 42% didn’t approve.
But by March 23 to March 26, Trump’s ratings on the pandemic were evenly split: 49% approved, 49% disapproved.
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