How Lincoln Project’s Brutal Anti-Trump Ads Could Reshape US Politics (Opinion)
Images of terrifying (and fearful) looking President Donald Trump disappear into images of federal troops – “faceless enforcers” – arresting or beating peaceful protesters. “This is how freedom dies,” says the narrator, and urges the Americans to register for the vote in November. “Because if we don’t, we know how it ends.” The final image fades to a phalanx of police officers in riot gear.
Another ad shows a gentler sounding female narrator. “Something is wrong with Donald Trump,” she says. “He’s shaky, weak. Difficulty speaking. Footage shows Trump drinking water with two hands during a speech and shuffling down a ramp after giving a speech at West Point. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, shaky, unfit president,” says the narrator. “Trump does not have the strength to lead. Nor the character to admit it.” Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen says these ads are for one audience: Trump himself. And they seem to have managed to get inside Trump’s head, and the president tried to prove his ability at his rally in Tulsa show drinking water with one hand.
But will these ads get into voters’ minds enough to sway the election?
The Lincoln Project advertisements are unusual. They weren’t made by Democrats, but by supporters of Trump’s own party.
Founded by a group of Republicans who are not only dissatisfied with Trump and the Republicans who continue to support him, they also expressly support Joe Biden. More prominent members of the project include George Conway, an influential Conservative lawyer married to top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, as well as some of the party’s best-known political activists including Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson and John Weaver. Her work has attracted attention across the political spectrum, from comedians to conservative critics to progressives who don’t trust the Lincoln Project. Less certain than these strong responses is whether the ability to set trends on social media will translate into votes for Biden. So far, the ads have had a relatively limited reach. In mid-July, the Lincoln Project’s total spending was less than $ 10 million, despite the group’s announced plans to raise and spend significantly more. That is nowhere near enough money to buy enough airtime to reach untied voters. By comparison, in the most competitive home races in 2018, total spend generally exceeded $ 15 million and in some cases was three or four times that.
Many who see the work of the Lincoln Project will see it on a friend’s social media feed or because someone sent them an email. This type of viral activity can go far but is less likely to reach the untied voters who political campaigns must now target.
Television remains the most popular news source in America, and a study by the Pew Research Center last year found that only 22% of Americans are on Twitter – a group that is rather disproportionately young and Democratic supporters. At this point in the election, most of those being served the ads online are already paying a lot of attention to politics and are unlikely to change their votes. Furthermore, while these ads can excite Biden followers, as with all ads, it is unclear how compelling they will be to undecided voters. Political scientists have long struggled with the question of which election campaign tactics have the greatest effect and do not yet have to answer this question conclusively. For example, while it is popular belief that the famous Willie Horton commercial with its racist dog whistle was key to George HW Bush’s victory in 1988, there has never been clear evidence of it being sincere in their desire not just to beat Trump, but to do so also to praise Biden. This seems to reflect a broader trend in American politics that could have a correspondingly larger impact on post-Trump America. Biden benefits from an unusually broad coalition that also attracts other disaffected Republicans. Campaigns from organizations like Republican Voters Against Trump, led by Conservative activist William Kristol, and rumors that John Kasich, a longtime Conservative Republican, is expected to speak in support of Biden at the Democratic Party Congress, will likely help the former vice president find his convenience to preserve lead in the polls.
While this will undoubtedly help Biden in the election, it can ultimately change the tenor of his presidency as well.
If Biden wins, organizations like the Lincoln Project will have new influence and options. You will be among the many groups, including progressive democratic activists, organized workers, LGBTQ voters, and voters of color who can claim to have voted in his election. Unlike these other groups, while vicious against Trump, the Lincoln Project is made up of conservatives. You will be well positioned to provide a conservative counterbalance to the progressives who would like President Biden to remain on the left after his election.
It will be difficult for a Biden administration to ignore the leadership of the Lincoln Project after the election. If, on the other hand, Trump loses heavily and brings his party down with him, which is currently possible but still far from certain, a post-Trump conservative party will be needed. The Lincoln Project, which staked out the political space as an anti-Trump Conservative, will also be well positioned to be at the center of this movement.
For Trump haters, every new ad from the Lincoln Project brings an excitement. For Trump lovers, every new ad is a source of outrage and anger. For Biden, if he wins, the Lincoln Project campaign will have been the empowerment of a handful of shrewd political advisors capable of influencing the new president or reshaping conservative politics.