Amid all the noise of an election involving Donald Trump – all the inflammatory tweets and shadowy Facebook posts – one set of ads has somehow managed to break through.
There’s the one of the US president shuffling down a ramp that declares that the president “is not well”. There’s the whispering one about Trump’s “loyalty problem” inside his White House, campaign and family.
There’s the epic Mourning in America that remakes Reagan’s election-defining 1984 ad, turning the sun-bathed suburbs into a dark national portrait of pandemic and recession. On Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, those three ads alone have racked up more than 35m views.
The Lincoln Project, run by a group of renegade Republican political consultants, has crystallized one of the core narratives of the 2020 campaign in ways that few other political commercials have in past cycles.
Its work on brutal attack ads sits alongside the swift boat veterans against John Kerry in 2004, the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and the daisy ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Their reward? Disdain from independent media, distrust across the political spectrum and a recent series of harshly negative coverage from pro-Trump media outlets.
Disdain appears to be the consensus view from the pundits. Atlantic magazine called their ads “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious, and trip-wired with non sequiturs”. The New Republic examined what it called “the viral impotency” of the Lincoln Project, suggesting they couldn’t “persuade voters of anything”. Even the Washington Post declared most of their ads were “aimed not at persuading disaffected Republicans but simply at needling the president”.
But that’s not how the project’s leaders see their work or purpose. In their launch manifesto, published as a column in the New York Times, the founders said their goal was “defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box”, including his Republican supporters in Congress.
To that end, they said their efforts were about “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 hold 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 towns.
“These are Republicans they are familiar with – former representatives and mayors,” said Sarah Lenti, executive director of the Lincoln Project. “People like Rick Snyder in Michigan who will come out and say, ‘We’re supporting the Lincoln Project and supporting Joe Biden this cycle.’ It gives people the cover to say, ‘Our leadership is doing this, so it’s OK for us too.’”
Alongside the top-tier surrogates and ads, there is a grassroots effort to organize women, veterans and evangelicals to reach out to persuade Republicans to abandon the president who dominates their party.
“There are certain voters we’re not going to move – the one-issue voters on the right to life – and that’s OK,” says Lenti.
“We’re looking at 3-5% of Republicans in certain states. They tend to be more educated than not. Over 40 years old, and the demographic split is about 50/50, maybe a little towards men. We’re also seeing traction with some evangelicals, and those are typically older and less educated.”
That sliver of disaffected Republicans is the target for ads like Mourning in America: people who are old enough to remember the original from three decades ago are also old enough to be at the highest risk of the coronavirus. “Under the leadership of Donald Trump,” the narrator says, “our country is weaker, and sicker, and poorer.”
That was the first ad that triggered Trump enough to tweet-storm about the group two months ago: a presidential outburst that transformed the Lincoln Project’s profile and resources.
“A group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago, have copied (no imagination) the concept of an ad from Ronald Reagan, “Morning in America”, doing everything possible to get even 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 focused on the individual founders of the project that troubles him so deeply. Given their track record in GOP politics, his dismissal of them as Rinos – Republicans In Name Only – means there are very few Republicans who can pass the Trump test.
The Lincoln Project founders 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 both Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004; Steve Schmidt, who ran the McCain campaign in 2008 and worked in the Bush White House and campaigns before that; and George Conway, a conservative lawyer whose wife Kellyanne just happens to work as Trump’s counselor in the West Wing.
The pushback did not stop there. The conservative Club for Growth took the extraordinary step of creating and airing its own ad attacking the Lincoln Project. It depicted the group as a bunch of failed strategists trying to make a quick buck by hating not just Trump but the American people.
This month they have been joined by two hit stories in the Murdoch-owned New York Post, accusing the founders of “ties to Russia and tax troubles” as well as secretly wanting to work for Trump. These may be confusing lines of attack for Trump supporters who have grown numb to ties to Russia, tax troubles and think highly of those who want to work for Trump.
For Democratic ad-makers, the work of the Lincoln Project has earned their respect, even if questions remain about its impact. “The ads have struck a chord with progressives and activists who see the Project as validating everything we’ve been saying about Trump, but now being voiced by the people we usually campaign against,” said Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic strategist and ad-maker for the Obama and Clinton campaigns. “The question is whether independent voters, moderate Republicans and white suburban voters will respond as well.
“If the objective is modest – moving a point or two in 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 one point in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. So even small gains can mean the difference between a Trump second term and a new day in America.”
But for some of the ads it is clear they are engaged in a battle for the attention of a singular target.
“Some of these ads have an audience of one,” says Lenti. “That’s always been part of the strategy. Because every time he gets off message, spewing grievances, he’s not campaigning. The idea is to get him off message again and again and again. It bothers him. We hear from people inside the White House that he wants them to make us go away. But we’re not going away.”
Trump’s concern about the Lincoln Project has only helped to fill its coffers. After seeing Mourning In America, Trump stepped off Marine One and talked to reporters before boarding Air Force One.
“They should not call it the Lincoln Project,” he complained, after taking more potshots 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 $2m for his sworn enemies. The group raked in more than $20m by the end of June, far ahead of its target of raising $30m by the end of the election cycle. Most of those funds came after Trump’s attacks in May, with small donors making up the bulk of its supporters: the average donation is around $50.
Now the group has enough funds to go after Trump’s supporters in tight Senate races. This week it placed its biggest ad buy – $4m in Alaska, Maine and Montana – as the expanded battlefield underscores its bigger goal.
“I don’t think this wing of the party is going away,” says Lenti. “Our job isn’t to reform the Republican party. Our job is to end Trump and Trumpism.”