The Lincoln Project is a political action committee (PAC) made up of Republicans and former Republicans who oppose Donald Trump. The group is deploying some unconventional tactics in their campaign to stop the re-election of the President in November, but is it part of a coherent strategy and, if so, will it work?
In 2016 there was a group of Republicans who resisted Donald Trump’s candidacy and organised against him in both the primary and general election contests. Whilst there were a few different conservative groups involved, the term to refer to the movement was “Never Trump Republicans” (#nevertrump).
Despite having some very capable campaigners on board, the movement failed to get a significant number of Republican supporters to vote for Clinton.
According to the Pew Research Centre, there was a greater proportion of people who identified as Democrat that voted for Trump than there were Republicans who voted for Clinton.
But the movement didn’t give up when Trump was inaugurated. Instead, they spent the ensuing years fundraising and organising for this year’s contest.
It seems like that time was well spent.
A significant amount of the narrative around the President’s re-election bid in the last month has been driven by Republicans trying to rescue their party from Trump.
The group making the most noise so far is ‘The Lincoln Project’ (TLP); others of note include ‘Republican Voters Against Trump’, ‘Regretful Trump Voters’, ‘43 Alumni’ and ‘Right Side’.
TLP’s founders are mostly campaigns and communication professionals. They have an impressive array of experience in senior positions within the Republican Party infrastructure and on Presidential campaigns for Republican candidates including George W. Bush, Senator John McCain and Senator John Kasich.
TLP’s advertisements have racked up many millions of organic views and been described variously in the news as “scathing”, “taking no prisoners” and “damning”.
There’s a wide range of different strategic approaches used in TLP’s advertisements and in some it’s not immediately obvious as how the message would encourage previous Trump voters to vote Biden (or to not vote at all).
However, political advertising is not only used to try and directly influence voter preference; there are a range of political marketing objectives that election advertising can support. TLP are cleverly varying their message and targeting according to the different jobs that they need to do.
According to John Weaver, one of TLP’s co-founders, some of their advertisements have a target “audience of one”.
An example of such an execution is “Whispers” (below) which uses a deeply haunting audio and visual technique to bring to life the notion that those closest to the President are disloyal.
Senior members of White House staff being duplicitous isn’t likely to be a cause for concern for your average Republican voter, but it is a subject which is said to be deeply provocative to Trump (the target audience of one).
TLP briefing that their TV ads are targeted at the President isn’t just hype to generate PR, the media buys confirm it; ads like “whispers” and “shrinking” (below) have a heavy focus on the Washington DC area, as well as states where the President is scheduled to visit, and they run during Trump’s favourite shows on channels like Fox News.
We know that TLP has been successful in reaching Trump with their ad buys as he has posted angry tweets in response to their commercials.
Trolling Trump is more than an expensive pursuit in puerility. It is an exercise in disrupting the President’s campaign.
Election campaigns are carefully planned months, and sometimes years, in advance; things like creating killer ads, announcing endorsements, launching policies, running big events and planning box office interview slots all take time.
Trying to get your own team, the media and the target audience into a space where messages have a chance of successfully landing isn’t easy. And it requires discipline and careful management.
When a campaign is firefighting or dragged off message it disrupts everything and helps give their opponents a free hit and space to plan.
Weaver has been explicit that disrupting Trump’s agenda is a focus of some of TLP’s ads, saying that it “gives the Biden campaign clean air”.
Campaigns use political advertising to raise money.
Dan Pfeiffer, the Obama campaign’s Communications Director in ‘08, said in his review of a recent TLP ad – ‘Flag of Treason’ (below) – that he suspected the main objective of it was to raise cash.
The ad was on the issue of the Confederate Flag, a topic which is still a polarising topic amongst many Republican voters.
Running a punchy ad on that issue in paid media targeted at swing voters would risk backfiring, so it’s very likely the actual aim of the ad was to be so provocative that it would go viral and get TLP in front of potential donors. Nothing spreads online like outrage.
One interesting thing to watch is whether TLP’s fundraising cannibalises money that would have made its way to Biden and Democratic PACs regardless, or whether the cash raised is incremental.
Given that those running TLP will have access to a donor network that will differ significantly from the donor lists that the Democrats typically use, the chances are pretty high that the funds they raise will be additive.
The group have reportedly raised $16.8 million this quarter. That’s not chump change. It’s more than Trump has spent on Facebook advertising in the 90 days since Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary contest on 8th April.
Persuading wavering Republicans
TLP uses money raised from ad stunts like “flag of treason” to run less bombastic, more persuasive ads targeted at wavering Republicans in battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Ohio.
The way in which TLP goes about this – an example of which is ‘How a President leads’ (below) – is to focus less on Trump’s policies and more on his Presidential qualities (or lack thereof) and put them in contrast with those of Joe Biden.
From this ad and others like it we can infer that TLP’s research indicates that there is a group of Republican voters who won’t back Biden on the basis of his policies, but who would consider lending him their vote to halt what they see as Trump’s toxic leadership of the country.
Will it work?
One study published in American Politics Research in March 2010 found that a 1,000-TV-ad advantage in any given market over the course of an election increased a candidate’s vote share by about 0.5 percentage points.
Given TLP’s ads have been particularly evocative so far, it may be that their campaign improves on this average.
Recent polling of people who voted Trump in ‘16 across 6 battleground states – each of which was won by Trump by 5% or less – shows that there are more than enough people currently ‘in play’ to tip the balance.
If TLP can raise incremental cash and contribute those additional funds to the anti-Trump share of voice in swing states, then there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that their advertising could have an effect on the outcome of the election.