Individual political action committees are rarely the subject of attack ads. But on Tuesday, the conservative Club for Growth released a one-minute spot targeting the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group of longtime Republican operatives that has released a series of caustic ads targeting the president.
“They don’t just hate him, they hate you,” the ad reads over footage of Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson mocking the intelligence of Trump voters on CNN, while host Don Lemon cracks up, practically in tears. The ad pushes a simple message: The Lincoln Project is nothing but a “Democrat PAC” and a “get-rich-quick scheme” from the swamp-dwellers who mangled John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns. “The Lincoln Project has nothing to do with principle, and everything to do with lining the pockets of failed consultants by attacking conservatives,” Club for Growth president David McIntosh said in a statement. “While the group is the darling of the liberal media, the fact is that it’s a Democrat front group and one of the least efficient ways for anti-Trumpers to spend their political dollars.”
The Lincoln Project hasn’t just been attacked by conservatives, it’s been singled out for criticism by Trump himself; when the president went on a Twitter rant about the PAC’s “Mourning in America” ad, the group declared victory. To a large extent, the Lincoln Project’s raison d’être is simply to annoy Trump and his closest allies. Public spats bring it attention and money and might possibly aid in its ultimate mission, removing Trump from office. Though the PAC has attracted media interest way out of proportion to its relatively small budget, it’s unclear what the Lincoln Project wants beyond a Biden victory in the fall—and if its tactics are even effective at anything other than making its Never Trump leaders even more famous.
Writing in The New York Times last December, the group’s founders made the case that they intended to pull Republicans like themselves from the president’s clutches. “The 2020 election, by every indication, will be about persuasion,” they wrote. “Our efforts are aimed at persuading disaffected conservatives, Republicans, and Republican-leaning independents in swing states and districts.” Aside from Wilson, the group’s founders include other well-pedigreed Republicans like John Weaver and Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns, respectively; Reed Galen, who worked for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign; and George Conway, who is married to top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway—an odd couple who would seem to be ideally situated to make the case to Republicans who are on the bubble. (The Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for comment.)
But political scientists have long been skeptical of advertisements’ ability to persuade voters of anything. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton ran many high-quality ads aimed at getting Trump-skeptical Republicans to vote for her, to apparently little effect. Like those 2016 ads, the Lincoln Project’s spots seem designed to go viral, not necessarily to persuade. Similarly, Clinton’s performance in the 2016 debates was widely lauded, particularly for jabs about Trump’s fitness for office. Despite the widespread belief that dunking on Trump is a successful political strategy, there’s little evidence that doing so accomplishes much, no matter how many retweets follow.
Some Lincoln Project ads have focused on the perilous state of the economy and Trump’s failure to control the coronavirus, key pillars of Biden’s presidential campaign. But many others have taken a pettier approach. Recent ads have mocked the turnout for the president’s recent campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and suggested he was not physically well, airing footage of him struggling to walk down a ramp and drink water. In an ad released on Wednesday, a veteran of Afghanistan rips into the president for not “stomping the shit out of some Russians right now, diplomatically or economically, or, if necessary, with the same sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.”
It’s unlikely that this tough talk, much of which betrays the neoconservative roots of many of the Lincoln Project’s founders, will persuade many of Trump’s 2016 voters to jump ship. “Such arguments,” wrote The Atlantic’s Andrew Ferguson in an examination of the PAC, “thrill those already on board, and only those.” There are, moreover, few of the voters the Lincoln Project aims to win over to begin with. A New York Times analysis found that 86 percent of the president’s 2016 voters are committed to voting for him again. (Six percent say there is “not really any chance” of them casting another ballot for the president, while 8 percent have said that they no longer support the president but are not sure if they will vote for him again.)
The Lincoln Project’s own tactics suggest that the PAC’s strategists know that they have little chance of persuading anyone. Their audience is liberals who are delighted to see Republicans roast the president. Instead, they have focused on attracting the ire of the president—which, in turn, brings in attention and money—airing advertisements at night on Fox News in Washington, D.C., in the hopes of getting the president’s attention. They succeeded, attracting a series of unhinged tweets. Speaking to Politico, Galen suggested that this was part of the group’s new strategy.
“It’s not just pissing off Donald Trump. Anybody could do that,” Galen said. “It’s, to what effect? Like, why are you doing it? And the point is to take him off his game and take his campaign off their game, strategically and tactically, so that the Biden campaign and Joe Biden can have the freedom of movement and the green air to do the things that they need to do.”
This is an absurdly self-aggrandizing argument. The idea that the Biden campaign needs the aid of a group of former Republicans to “take [Trump’s] campaign off their game” doesn’t track with anything that has happened over the last three-and-a-half years. The president is constantly distracted and disheveled. The Lincoln Project may be the flavor of the month, but the president would still be rage-tweeting about minor slights if the PAC had never come into being. There is an argument, moreover, that advertisements mocking the president’s physical fitness and calling for attacks on Russian troops distract from the Biden campaign’s core message: the economy, the coronavirus, and Trump’s temperament.
What, then, is the Lincoln Project up to? Going viral is, more than ever, its own reward, something surely not lost on a group of political consultants who have been sidelined as Trump and his allies have taken over a GOP that used to listen to them. The success of their ads on social media is a claim of relevancy and could easily lead to more work—which is to say, more money.
Galen’s comments to Politico are also telling. The Lincoln Project wants a stake in Biden’s 2020 victory. Its various manifestos make large, unverifiable claims: It will win over Republicans, its ads are giving Biden “freedom of movement” to do something or other. If Biden wins, it would not be surprising for the group to claim a modicum of credit—and also to claim that it speaks for the Republicans (and perhaps even moderate Democrats) who backed the former vice president. Even though these voters appear to be statistically insignificant, one could easily imagine a future in which the Lincoln Project is using its claim to speak for moderates to lobby the Biden administration against health care expansion or a rise in the corporate tax rate—which will surely put it on the same side as all the Republican politicians who have enabled Trump’s rise.
Of course, there might be a simpler explanation. The Club for Growth, a political stopped clock if there ever was one, might just be on to something. In May, the Center for Responsive Politics found that “The Lincoln Project reported spending nearly $1.4 million through March. Almost all of that money went to the group’s board members and firms run by them.” Through November, their ads will rack up views on Twitter and might even change the mind of a voter or two. And the money, of course, will keep rolling in. It’s the type of hustle that would make Trump proud.