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Hitting Donald Trump Where It Just Might Hurt

Outside groups tried attacking the GOP frontrunner as insufficiently conservative. Now they're going for the gut. Plus: this week's Ad Wars round-up.

American Future Fund / YouTube

Flanked by a Trump University banner, Donald Trump grimaces smugly from the screen. “Former students say Trump University was a scam,” a narrator intones, as the somber faces of several defrauded students appear on screen. “The truth about Trump University? Donald Trump made millions while hardworking Americans got scammed.”

Welcome to the latest wave of attack ads from Republican establishment groups desperate to undercut the frontrunner’s appeal before he locks up the GOP nomination. It’s a high-dollar, last-ditch effort to stir doubts about Trump’s populist bona fides in the run-up to the critical winner-take-all primaries on March 15 in five delegate-rich states, including Florida and Ohio. Think of it as the televisual complement to the assaults on Trump’s character and business record being touted by Mitt Romney, John McCain, and other anxious Republican leaders. And for the first time in this campaign, it’s making Trump flinch a little. 

For months, a handful of outside groups have targeted Trump with ads in the early primary states that have generally misfired. In late January, Our Principles PAC released several spots questioning whether he was a “true conservative.” Many of them recycled the same footage: a Meet the Press interview from 1999, when Trump told Tim Russert he would not ban partial-birth abortion; an interview on 60 Minutes where he said he was for universal healthcare; and a CNN clip in which Trump praised Hillary Clinton. Club for Growth Action, another group gunning for Donald Trump, followed suit before the South Carolina primary, rolling out an ad bluntly titled, “There’s Nothing Conservative about Donald Trump.” While Our Principles PAC claimed credit for Trump’s relatively poor performance in Iowa, the strategy has bombed everywhere else. 

To see why those attacks fell flat, you only have to look at why so many people support Trump so ardently. “There is a whole section of voters that go on their gut instinct,” says Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini. “Those are Trump voters. And for them, ideological attacks don’t work.”

Now, at long last, the tactics have shifted. The Republican groups’ newest ads never talk about ideology, but instead focus on the people Trump has allegedly hurt and ripped off: a single mom who paid $35,000 without receiving a degree from Trump University, for instance, or a widow forced to vacate her home so Trump could pave a parking lot outside his Atlantic City casino. On Wednesday, Our Principles PAC released an ad called “Scam,” with the narrator declaring, “Trump is facing massive lawsuits for fraud and what one state attorney general called fraudulent, illegal, and deceptive conduct.” American Future Fund has been rotating three ads featuring regular folks talking about how Trump University ruined their lives. “America, do not make the same mistake I did with Donald Trump,” says Sherri, the single mom, in one. “I got hurt badly and I would hate to see this country get hurt.”

These ads aim to inflict the same emotional wallop that the documentary “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” did in 2012, when a PAC backing Newt Gingrich released a 28-minute film (and shorter ads based on it) that tracked Romney’s Bain Capital years. In a bumpy economic time, the testimonies of Americans who said they’d lost their jobs because of Romney played to the insecurities of the white working class furious at corporate raiders whose “greed was only matched by their willingness to make millions in profits.” 

The recent anti-Trump ads tap into similar anxieties and resentments—the very ones that so many Trump supporters, angry that they were left behind in the economic recovery, are feeling. It’s more than a little ironic, of course, given that Trump and Romney have spent the past week brawling on Twitter (and on stage). But the two men share the same vulnerability: Their rivals can portray them as heartless scavengers, profiting off ordinary Americans. And planting the idea that Trump has swindled hard-working Americans could be very damaging—perhaps even more so than “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” since Trump has sold himself as a champion of the working class. 

It may well be too late to derail Trump’s nomination, but these attacks could hurt him down the road in the general election. “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” didn’t stop the former Massachusetts governor from being the GOP candidate, but it established a narrative about Romney that he only kept reinforcing throughout the campaign with missteps like his infamous “47 percent” comment. If the narrative about his business ventures sticks, Trump might find it harder to keep bragging about his business prowess, tough boardroom negotiating, and immense wealth—and the eventual Democratic nominee would have ready-made ammunition to hammer the mogul in the general election.

Trump may be worried about that prospect. As Ruffini notes, he’s pushing back on the narrative about Trump University far more concertedly than he has when other campaigns hammered him for other offenses, like his derogatory comments about McCain. “They possibly view it as more damaging to his candidacy,” Ruffini says. As they should. 


With new TV commercials bombarding the airwaves before the crucial winner-take-all primaries on March 15, we analyzed the ten most notable spots from this week—including a spate of attacks on Donald Trump—and listed the rest below. You can see every presidential spot that’s aired in this campaign cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Marco Rubio: “Knows Nothing” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Conservative Solutions PAC, the outside group backing Marco Rubio

Reach: Aired in Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, and Mississippi

Impact: This unexceptional attack ad sticks with the familiar talking points about Marco Rubio being the foreign-policy expert and Donald Trump knowing nothing. But the ad makers decided to spice things up by making it look like an old movie reel, a choice that’s more distracting than innovative. 

Marco Rubio: “Miami” 

Type: Biographical Ad

Who Paid for ItConservative Solutions PAC, the outside group backing Marco Rubio

Reach: Aired in Florida

Impact: With the narrator enthusiastically intoning that Rubio “knows our streets, our communities, our passions,” this ad occasionally sounds like a telenovela. But after spending months denying that he supported a pathway to citizenship, you have to wonder whether this Spanish-language ad will have much impact in Miami, where 36 percent of residents are immigrants. 

This week’s other new ads from Conservative Solutions: Fools,” “Better Way” 

American Future Fund: “Sherri” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? American Future Fund, a Republican PAC that has attacked a variety of Republican candidates. Rivals say it is affiliated with Marco Rubio. 

Reach: Aired nationwide as part of a multi-million dollar ad buy

Impact: Of the three American Future Fund spots that feature people allegedly swindled by Trump University (see column above), this ad is perhaps the most effective, partly because Sherri, the single mom who talks directly to the camera for 30 seconds, looks like she’s holding back tears. 

American Future Fund: “Best Negotiators” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for ItAmerican Future Fund, a Republican PAC that has attacked a variety of Republican candidates

Reach: Aired in Florida and on national cable

Impact: This ad tries to paint Trump as a thug, rubbing shoulders with criminals, mafiosos, and drug traffickers. While the charges seem a little exaggerated, the spot has a terrific kicker: “Trump entrusted convicts to help him run his company. Who would he entrust to run the country?” 

This week’s other new ads from American Future Fund: Bob,” “Kevin” 

Our Principles PAC: “Scam” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Our Principles PAC, a Republican group devoted to attacking Donald Trump

ReachAired nationwide as part of a $1 million ad buy 

Impact: The infomercial footage of Trump talking about Trump University is the best part of this ad. By showing how good Trump is at selling something shady to average Americans, the ad undermines his credibility, his main asset with an electorate that wants a politician who “tells it like it is.” 

Our Principles PAC: “Unelectable” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for ItOur Principles PAC, a Republican group devoted to attacking Donald Trump

Reach: Released online

Impact: Republican groups rarely call other Republicans racist, but this anti-Trump ad does exactly that, and its montage of newscasters and pundits saying things like “I flat-out called him a racist” is blistering. It also previews arguments Hillary Clinton will trot out in the general election if Trump does become the nominee: that he’s a “bigot” and a “xenophobe.” 

This week’s other new ads from Our Principles PAC: Big Money” 

Club for Growth: “Tough Guy” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Club for Growth Action, a super PAC affiliated with the conservative group Club for Growth, which lobbies for lower taxes

Reach: Aired in Florida as part of a $1.5 million ad buy 

Impact: This rather standard ad suggests that Donald Trump, for all his tough talk, is actually a weakling. But the narration is interesting because it uses words often ascribed to bullies, like “hide,” “duck,” and “pick on,” to make him sound like a coward. 

Hillary Clinton: “Gabby” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Massachusetts on the weekend before Super Tuesday

Impact: This ad is arresting because you can see how much former Representative Gabrielle Giffords is struggling to form words on camera. It was a shrewd move on the part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which clearly believes that confronting viewers with the human cost of gun violence is a powerful argument in her favor. 

This week’s other new ads from the Clinton campaign: Al Franken” 

Ted Cruz: “Experience” 

Type: Biographical

Who Paid for It? Keep the Promise I, a super PAC backing Ted Cruz

Reach: Aired in Tennessee and other Super Tuesday states 

Impact: After South Carolina, where most of Keep the Promise I’s attacks on Donald Trump failed to have any effect, the PAC seems to have moved away from hitting Trump. Instead, it’s airing ads like this bland spot, which recycles positive, biographical talking points about Ted Cruz’s experience as a lawyer who “fought for the Constitution” and the Second Amendment. 

Ted Cruz: “Ted Cruz Is Our Candidate” 

Type: Endorsement ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Texas on the weekend before Super Tuesday

Impact: This spot is slightly more effective than the usual endorsement ad because Texas Governor Greg Abbott suggests that people should vote for Senator Ted Cruz out of loyalty to their home state: “It is our duty as Texas conservatives to support a leader that we can trust.” 

John Kasich: “Meow” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC backing John Kasich

Reach: Aired in Ohio as part of a six-figure ad buy

Impact: New Day for America has a reputation for quirky ads, like their “mud” commercials in New Hampshire, but this one verges on the bizarre with a vulgar word Trump said at a campaign event bleeped out with the “weary cat face” emoji. The ad aired on television in Ohio, where the mostly older viewers who see it might not understand the emoji reference. 

This week’s other new ads from New Day for America: Talk

At the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive, you can view this week’s other ads: 

The Sanders campaign: “People Before Polluters