The ad opens with Mark Geist walking through Arlington National Cemetery, dressed in a crisp collared shirt. He’s been identified only as a Marine Corps veteran, but some viewers will undoubtably recognize him on sight. Geist was a member of the security team that rescued 25 Americans in the 2012 attacks on the American compound in Benghazi. Two years later, his story was chronicled in the book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, which has since been turned into a blockbuster film. Now, he is starring in a strange new commercial hammering Hillary Clinton in key swing states across the country.
“A lot of people say they’re not going to vote this November because their candidate didn’t win,” Geist says. “Well, I know some people who won’t be voting this year either.” Rows and rows of white marble tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia start going in and out of focus on screen. (Quite a lot of them, considering that only four Americans died in the Benghazi attack.)
“Hillary as president? No thanks.” Geist glowers. “I served in Benghazi. My friends didn’t make it. They did their part. Do yours.”
Only at the very end of the ad, underneath a large TRUMP 2016 banner, do you see the seal of the National Rifle Association: an eagle perched precariously on two crossed muskets. And then it dawns on you: That was the first reference to guns or gun rights in the whole commercial. The NRA is advertising about something else.
This seems unaccountably odd. The NRA has been a major player in the political ad wars for years, ramping up its efforts after 2010, when the Supreme Court lifted the restrictions on how much outside groups could devote to political campaigns. According to The Trace, the NRA spent almost $32 million to elect politicians friendly to the gun lobby in 2014 and to pummel imperiled Democrats in the Senate and House, almost always for some version of wanting to “take your guns.”
With Trump struggling to raise the money he needs to compete on the air, the NRA’s ad dollars could have more impact in 2016 than ever before in a presidential race. The Mark Geist spot—which will cost $2 million to air on cable and in Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—is the largest outside expenditure thus far for Trump; in fact, it exceeds the Trump campaign’s $1.3 million total cash-on-hand at last report. Clinton had dramatically outspent Trump on the airwaves since the campaign moved into general-election mode, pummeling him for encouraging violence at his rallies and for implying that his Scottish golf course would profit from the Brexit. On June 21, Kantar Media found that in the past week Clinton and her allies had run 7,829 ads. Trump’s side had run a meager 67.
The Clinton-Benghazi spot suggests the group may have a novel strategy for this campaign. But what?
In 2012, the NRA spent around $13 million on ads to help Mitt Romney in his presidential bid—a sizable sum, but one that was swallowed up in the Republican fundraising behemoth that Romney and his allies constructed. That cycle’s ads also largely supported the Republican by attacking the Democrat. But the hits on President Obama were precisely what you’d expect from the nation’s largest gun lobby—they were about guns and Second Amendment rights. An October TV blitz was typical, grimly warning that Obama and the Democratic Party were “chipping away at your rights, chipping away at your freedoms, and now … attacking your Second Amendment rights.”
So why the turn away from gun-rights messaging and toward to the well-worn non-scandal of Benghazi? “This is an unusual tactic,” Erika Franklin Fowler, a Wesleyan University professor who tracks campaign ads for the Wesleyan Media Project, told me in an email. Normally, she says, “groups like the NRA are the most likely to stick to their own issues” when they run campaign ads.
You could see the Benghazi focus as the NRA’s tacit admission that public opinion has shifted emphatically against its blanket opposition to any form of gun control. Fully 55 percent of American voters now support tougher gun control legislation, up 11 points since 2012. The recent massacre in Orlando—which left 49 dead after Omar Mateen walked into a nightclub carrying a Sig Sauer .223 caliber rifle and Glock 17—has driven up already-strong support for gun control measures like background checks, which spiked nine points to 90 percent in the wake of the Orlando shootings. Clinton is working to capitalize on this and make gun control a wedge issue that will now favor the Democrats.
But the NRA is not exactly known for catering to public opinion on gun control—or for backing away from any unpopular fight. The explanation for the seemingly inexplicable Benghazi ad may lie in a deeper strategy the group has for this fall: It may have less to do with electing Trump over Clinton than with what happens to down-ballot Republicans in November.
Normally, a candidate whose chances were as far-fetched as Trump’s—this week, Nate Silver gave him only a 20-percent chance of winning—would be bypassed by the NRA. The group has been remarkably disciplined about targeting close races its strategists know Republican candidates can win. That’s why their success rate in electing candidates has climbed in recent years from 60 percent in 2010 and 2012 to 72 percent in 2014, according to The Trace.
Instead of gunning to put Trump in the White House, the NRA may be calculating that assailing Clinton—on an issue that will only resonate with voters who already dislike her—will lessen the damage a Trump disaster could do to the members of Congress and state legislators who Republican Party as a whole. Keeping the animosity toward Clinton alive among its rank-and-file—no matter how Trump is floundering, or however much he’s deviating from the NRA script—is one way to ensure that they turn out in November. Low Republican turnout, far more than a Hillary Clinton presidency, is greatly to be feared: Cutting into the Republicans’ edge in most state legislatures, and in the U.S. House, would put gun-control laws on the table as a real possibility, especially given the new level of public disgust for unfettered access to guns.
Granted, this first ad debuted at a rather awkward time: Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy issued the findings of his investigation into the Benghazi attacks Tuesday, finding no new evidence that Clinton was culpable. But the fact that there’s nothing to the Benghazi scandal is nothing new, and really doesn’t matter. If the NRA sticks to the strategy of its first ad, it’ll presumably venture into many other scandalous allegations that have no more grounding in reality than Benghazi. But no matter how ridiculous the attacks may be, it won’t matter if they keep the fires of anti-Clinton fear and loathing burning.
“People ignore information,” says Travis Ridout, who studies campaign ads at Washington State University. “They ignore facts that are inconsistent with their beliefs. You could hit them over the head with all the evidence that Hillary Clinton was not involved, and it wouldn’t make a difference.” And that, quite literally, is what the NRA is banking on.