Trolling Trump Isn’t The Same Thing As Beating Him

The Lincoln Project’s ads go viral. That doesn’t mean they work.

The Lincoln Project, a group of “Never Trump” Republicans who have now dedicated themselves to defeating the president in 2020, makes “the best ads on television,” according to Democrat Howard Dean, Vermont’s former governor. They understand voters better than Democratic ad makers, a Politico Magazine essay declares. Need some metrics to back up this assessment? Just check Twitter, where their videos routinely rack up more than a million views and glowing reviews from Democratic partisans.

The Lincoln Project’s ads attack the president in direct and uncompromising terms, portraying him as a traitor to American national security for his friendships with authoritarian Russian leader Vladimir Putin, or as out-of-step with a tradition of American leadership.

But pundits praising the group’s ads may be making one of the defining errors of the Trump era, mistaking virality for effectiveness and popularity with committed partisans for persuasion.

Democratic strategists and ad-makers view much of the group’s output with a mix of skepticism and jaundice, noting many of its lines of attack were tested by the party in the past and found to be less effective at persuading undecided voters than messages focused on health care, the economy and how Trump’s decisions directly impact voters’ lives. They broadly view the group as more of a media phenomenon than as a truly useful ally in the war against Trump.

A spokesman for The Lincoln Project didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For one thing, for The Lincoln Project’s ads to be the best on television, they’d actually need to be on television. They barely are, and especially not in the markets that matter. The group has spent just $2.4 million on television advertising, according to data from CMAG, with the biggest portion of that spending occurring in the utterly uncompetitive Washington, D.C., media market. On Thursday, it strangely booked advertising time in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

The group’s digital spending is more on target: About 40% of its advertising on Facebook and Google has gone to the major swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida, according to a source tracking digital buys. It still pales in comparison to what traditional Democratic super PACs are spending. (Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, has already spent $20 million on television ads alone.)

The “ad” cited in the first sentence of the Politico Magazine piece? It’s not an ad at all. It’s a 24-second video that never ran on television or on any digital platform.

So far, The Lincoln Project doesn’t actually appear interested in political persuasion. Instead, it is, in its own words, dedicated to trolling the president. It routinely airs its ads on the president’s preferred cable network, Fox News, to make sure he sees them. Before the president’s trip to South Dakota for July Fourth, it ran a spot on the network bashing Trump as a coward. Another ad suggested the president’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was bilking him ― not exactly a top concern for undecided voters living through a pandemic.

Democrats were generally unwilling to go on record criticizing the group. They acknowledged that throwing Trump even more off-kilter than usual can be helpful, and that generating news coverage around the idea of Republicans voting against Trump can create a permission structure for rank-and-file Republicans to break with the president.

Ads calling President Donald Trump a coward may go viral, but alienate swing voters.
Ads calling President Donald Trump a coward may go viral, but alienate swing voters.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

“They’re not going to go ad dollar for ad dollar in the Grand Rapids media market, but they are creating a national environment where it is easier for Republicans to have doubts against Trump,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “They are literally creating a safe space for Republicans to express their concerns about the president.”

Trump’s approval rating with GOP voters remains sky-high, and very few are expected to cross over and vote for Biden in November, in part because many Republicans uncomfortable with Trump have already left the party.

And if The Lincoln Project has proven excellent at anything, it’s generating news coverage. Three of The Lincoln Project’s founders ― Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and John Weaver ― are or have been regular guests on cable news, and the group has been mentioned dozens of times on MSNBC and CNN since the beginning of June. And the idea that members of the president’s own party are aiming brutal attacks his way thrills liberals, leading left-leaning news outlets ― including HuffPost ― to reward the group with headlines.

Democratic operatives’ eye-rolling toward The Lincoln Project is part of a broader frustration with a news and social media culture they see as rewarding Twitter dunks more than effectiveness. While some ads may land with liberals who are eager to smash the retweet button, attacking Trump as irredeemably corrupt or a bumbling buffoon may make a swing voter who still believes Trump has handled the economy well defensive instead of angry at him.

“Ad making in 2020 is much more about what you can do with 6 seconds vs what you can do with 60.”

- Danielle Butterfield, Priorities USA

“Good political ad makers & managers are operatives who put aside what personally appeals to them or the Twitterverse & go with the message that moves voters,” Anne Caprara, a Democratic operative who now serves as the chief of staff to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, wrote on Twitter on Thursday night. “But while YOU may think that fancy new anti-Trump ad is so hard hitting & cathartic (‘OMG THIS AD!’) - the voter you need to persuade might find it offensive or off putting or just dumb.”

And while political videos that are more than a minute long often go viral, they’re essentially impossible to run on television, or in any digital format a swing voter won’t simply skip over.

“Just a reminder that lots of ‘ads’ on this website are way longer than the average watch time,” Danielle Butterfield, the director of paid media at Priorities USA, wrote on Twitter. “Ad making in 2020 is much more about what you can do with 6 seconds vs what you can do with 60.”

The question of The Lincoln Project’s effectiveness is not a settled one. The group’s virality is likely to soon turn into money, either from online donors giving $5 a pop or from major donors cutting massive checks. And that money could be put to good use. The people behind The Lincoln Project are professional political operatives, after all, and they know how to conduct the polling and focus groups necessary to craft potentially effective messages.

Next week, the group is due to file its first Federal Election Commission report in three months, which could provide broader hints at its plans for the fall. Its first FEC report showed 90% of the money the group raised going toward the consultants behind it.

While it’s not unusual for a PAC that is just launching to have high administrative costs, Trump and the Republican National Committee have latched on to those fees to argue The Lincoln Project is a scam PAC, shorthand for a group that raises a lot of money and spends almost none of it on actually persuading voters.

The Club for Growth, a conservative group, picked up on this line of attack in its own ad on Fox News.

“After watching their careers go up in flames, they’ve set up a Democrat PAC, a get-rich-quick scheme pushing Joe Biden for president,” the ad’s narrators said of The Lincoln Project’s founders.

In other words, a political group purchased time on a cable news network to attack a group of political operatives who mostly appear on two different cable news networks. It’s unclear how the ad played in Wisconsin.

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