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Can Democratic Attack Ads Tear Down Donald Trump?

Republican groups' attacks haven't done the trick. But one big-money Democratic super PAC believes it has the formula.

Make America Awesome/YouTube

Republican groups in the #NeverTrump camp have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the real estate mogul in the last two months—mafia connections, failed business ventures, flagrant misogyny, racism, you name it. But Trump has continued to rack up delegates and now looks likely to secure the GOP nomination before the convention in July. This has generated some alarm in Democratic quarters: What if Donald Trump is this resilient in the general election?

You’ll find no such pessimism around the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Priorities USA Action. The wealthiest Democratic super PAC bent on taking down Trump in the general election is the same one that successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate titan in 2012. Two former White House staffers—spokesman Bill Burton and Rahm Emanuel aide Sean Sweeney—founded Priorities USA in 2011, less than a year after the Supreme Court decided Citizens United and opened the floodgates for unlimited spending in American politics. Billionaire donors like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson were already funneling millions into super PACs supporting Republican candidates running for office up and down the ticket in 2012. Priorities USA was an attempt to help President Obama catch up. The group spent more than $65 million against Republican candidates in 2012, much of it devoted to assailing Romney. 

Since last summer, Priorities USA’s small team has been planning a frontal assault on the next Republican nominee. The strategists at Priorities are now sketching out a plan to boost the Democrats’ probable nominee, Hillary Clinton, assembling dossiers on both Trump and Ted Cruz, and getting a head start on reserving prime television time in crucial battleground states. The super PAC announced Tuesday that it had begun preparing a $70 million advertising blitz slated to begin after the July conventions in battleground states like Florida and Ohio.

The money is flowing more easily this time than in 2012, when some wealthy liberals still balked at the rise of super PACs. Priorities has already raised more than $55 million from prominent Democratic donors like James Simons and George Soros. It began the second quarter with a $44.5 million war chest and an additional $49 million in commitments, according to The Washington Post

The group has been scripting and testing ads since last year. But what do they think is going to work against Trump when every Republican attack has failed? While we don’t forecast our strategy specifically,” says Priorities spokesman Justin Barasky, “it’s likely that we will explore Donald Trump’s temperament, character, and selfish legacy of enriching himself at the expense of others.”

The chief strategist at Priorities, Guy Cecil—who was the political director on Clinton’s 2008 campaign, then executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—says the group will pose three central questions to voters. First, Is this the type of person that has the character and temperament to be president—someone who has made his way through the primary by belittling groups of Americans with sexist and homophobic remarks?” Second, “Do we want a president who lifts the people up or tears them down?” And finally, “Do we have the right person to provide steady, consistent, experienced leadership to keep the country safe? There is a strong contrast there that we can draw between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”

These lines of attack have been used before, of course. The Republican establishment has gone after the front-runner from practically every angle—and failed to make a dent in Trump’s progress toward the nomination. Cecil says the Democratic ad blitz in the general election will be more effective for reasons of timing alone: “We’ll have a focused strategy—not just waiting until three weeks before the election and simply throwing everything we have at Trump, which is what the Republicans did.”  

Priorities’ early start is certainly an advantage. Republican elites are still scrambling to see whether they can stall Trump and ensure a contested convention. Some are considering whether to field a third-party challenger. Of course, there are Republican groups conducting research and cooking up attacks against Clinton now, too, but much of the Republican establishment’s money is currently being spent in the furious effort to try and put the brakes on Trump, rather than homing in on Clinton. Once the Republicans’ nominating process is finally over, Democratic groups will have had their strategy in place for months. According to Cecil, starting early also stretches their dollars, allowing them to buy ads at a slightly lower rate—the later in the election season, the more expensive ad time is—and to have their pick of shows and time slots to reach the voters Priorities wants to reach this fall.  

There’s another reason to believe that the Democratic hits on Trump might be effective where the Republican groups have failed. Even though the “Dump Trump” ads that blanketed the airwaves in states like Florida and Ohio earlier this month did little to dissuade the Trump faithful, there’s evidence that some of the messages did sink in with independent voters. The advertising assessment firm Ace Metrix released a study last week evaluating 24 commercials that have aired against Trump since January. Some flopped, but the three commercials aired by Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump group, that featured testimonials from scammed Trump University students begging viewers not to trust Trump were effective with independents.

The problem with many recent “Dump Trump” ads was not that they were bad attacks—they were just reaching staunch Republicans who, according to Ace, are less susceptible to them. They’ll work among independents in the general election. Cecil added that the women and undecideds that Democrats need in the general election are also likely to be swayed.

Of course, given Trump’s, um, colorful past, both personally and professionally, there may well be new material that can sway these voters as well—damning dirt on Trump that the Republican candidates or their allied groups have either failed to uncover or judged too distasteful to use in the primary. Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, among others, has referenced “a truism among Republicans that a vast reservoir of damaging opposition research [amassed by Democratic firms] remains untouched.”

Not surprisingly, Priorities USA is mum about what it’s unearthed since research began on Trump last summer—back when most Republicans still thought Trump would fizzle out and weren’t bothering to do the same detective work. Baransky will only say: “One thing that’s eternally true about Donald Trump is you never run out of material.”

Whether or not Priorities comes up with the magic bullet against Trump, it will have advantages the Republican groups never had: the time and resources to adjust its strategies, toss out what doesn’t stick, and try new tacks. That was what the Republican establishment lacked in this primary cycle: By the time groups like Our Principles realized their attacks weren’t hitting home with Republican primary voters, Trump had already racked up a nearly insurmountable delegate lead. 

Trump could, of course, still prove to be uniquely, almost magically, immune to attacks in the general election. But he’ll have to fend off the kind of sustained barrage that he hasn’t faced in the Republican primaries—and one that will be aimed, this time, at voters who are already skeptical of him.


Since only Idaho, Arizona, and Utah have headed to the polls since last Friday, the ad wars are calming down somewhat. We’ve analyzed six notable spots that aired for the first time this week. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Bernie Sanders: “Far Reaching Climate Plan” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

ImpactBernie Sanders has refused to air overtly negative ads against Hillary Clinton. But this commercial exemplifies the genre of “issue ads” that Sanders uses as veiled hits on Clinton—so subtle viewers might not pick up on it. When the announcer recites vague tag lines like “people before polluters” and “Bernie Sanders—the courage to stand up to big oil because he won’t take their money,” read: Hillary Clinton is in the pocket of Wall Street interests fueling climate change. 

Bernie Sanders: “Conviction” 

Type: Endorsement

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Hawaii as part of a $174,000 buy

Impact: If Sanders were to make any headway against Clinton in the coming months, Tulsi Gabbard would make a perfect vice presidential candidate. In this ad, which features lush palm trees, smiling babies, and lots of leis, the congresswoman, a rising star in the Democratic Party, makes a strong case for Sanders based on his desire to avoid unnecessary wars. Her endorsement should play well in Hawaii, where the second largest industry is the military: Sanders needs to reassure those voters that he has the foreign policy chops to be a good commander-in-chief, and Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, may help him do so.

Hillary Clinton: “Ladders” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in Hawaii as part of a $50,000 ad buy

Impact: Both Clinton and Sanders are making sizable advertising pushes in Hawaii with new spots designed specifically for the voters in that state’s March 26 caucus, even though it offers only 34 Democratic delegates. This one shows Clinton pushing for better education, an issue she also highlighted in Arizona. The topic likely played well in Arizona, which often places in the bottom five in rankings of states with the best and worst school systems. Hawaii, however, is closer to the middle of the pack, making you wonder whether Clinton is simply recycling talking points from the ad she aired last week. 

John Kasich: “Suggest” 

Type: Issue ad

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

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

Impact: This persuasive ad hones in on the central rationale for John Kasich: He’s the only Republican who polls show would beat Clinton in the general election. With the announcer proclaiming that Kasich has refused to heed the Republican elders urging him to leave the race, the Ohio governor also looks like an outsider in this ad. You can just imagine the Republican establishment fuming that Kasich has such a good advertising firm. 

Donald Trump: “Lying Ted” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for ItThe Trump campaign

ReachAired in Utah 

Impact: Donald Trump continues his quest to give every presidential candidate an epithet that sticks: Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Lying Ted, and Incompetent Hillary (though that last one lacks the same catchiness). It is refreshing to remember that Donald Trump can use adjectives other than “tremendous.” 

Our Principles PAC: “Imagination” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Our Principles, a super PAC that aims to prevent Donald Trump from getting the nomination

Reach: Aired in Utah

Impact: This anti-Trump commercial was likely effective in Utah, where Mitt Romney is still popular (and where Ted Cruz won Tuesday’s caucus). But the clips of the 2012 nominee saying “his promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University” are also a reminder of just how wooden he is behind a camera—even when talking about impending armageddon, should Trump get the Republican nomination. 

Other new ads from Our Principles: Real”