Democrats love the Lincoln Project. Every new video the NeverTrump SuperPAC produces gets gleefully retweeted by Democratic operatives, Hollywood luminaries, and other members of the Resistance glitterati.
It’s been a weird campaign season, but there is perhaps nothing weirder than the fact that Democratic activists and donors have placed their hopes and dreams in the hands of Kellyanne Conway’s husband and the people behind the campaigns of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Howard Schultz.1 The idea that “Republicans are just better at making ads” has become commonplace in Democratic circles. The Lincoln Project has received tons of adulatory press coverage. Politico magazine published an entire piece about the special sauce that these Republicans possess and their Democratic counterparts lack. Liberal money is pouring into the coffers of the Republican group, but is the Lincoln Project really the savior we’ve been waiting for?
Pundits (and let’s be honest, we’re a nation of pundits) tend to judge political ads like the ghost of Roger Ebert might—they notice how ad makers use cinematography, music, and camera angles to create dramatic tension. On this measure, the Lincoln Project is very, very good. Their ads are well made with the sort of compelling visuals that are necessary to grab our attention in a hyperkinetic media environment. The consultants behind the effort are clearly some of the best and brightest in the Republican Party. I have worked against most of the members of Lincoln Project in various campaigns and they are definitely talented. Their ads are light years better than most of the Trump campaign ads, which feel like the schlocky commercials for virility supplements that run on Fox News in primetime.2
Partisans (and let’s be honest, we’re a nation of partisans, too) judge ads based on how those ads make them feel. On this measure, the Lincoln Project is also very good. Their ads are basically porn for people who hate Trump. There is no doubt that the Lincoln Project is masterful at going viral. Each of their videos gets millions of views, but virality and effectiveness are not the same thing in political advertising. In fact they are often in direct conflict.
Pundits and partisans are not the targets. Persuading people to vote who would not otherwise do so is the only purpose of a political ad. In the 2020 election, there are three groups of voters who matter—2016 Trump voters, 2016 third-party voters, and 2016 non-voters who model as likely Democrats. Everything is else just content for content’s sake.
Some of the Lincoln Projects ads, like the one with the former Navy SEAL who identifies as pro-gun and pro-life lambasting Trump, are likely very effective with that first group of voters. There is a lot of opinion research that shows that conservative messengers work best with these more conservative, persuadable voters. Acronym, the progressive digital non-profit, found that an ad that featured Tucker Carlson criticizing Trump on Iran policy was very effective in lowering the president’s approval rating with soft Republicans.
The Lincoln Project videos ridiculing Trump for his inability to navigate a ramp or the attack ad narrated completely in Russian are clearly more about perturbing Trump than persuading voters. The vast majority of ads the Lincoln Project has released thus far are unlikely to move a single voter, and that isn’t what they were designed to do. Some of their ads are so extremely online that you need an advanced degree in political Twitter to even understand them.
Without getting into existential questions of unperceived existence, let me just say that it doesn’t matter how good an ad is if no one really sees it.3 For all of the attention and retweets, the Lincoln Project ads are not being seen by a lot of voters. According to Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks ad spending, the Lincoln Project has spent about $2.5 million on presidential campaign ads. To put that number into perspective, since May 11 the Trump campaign has spent more than $31 million on television ads in battleground states. Priorities USA, the Democratic SuperPAC, has already more than $45 million this cycle in five battleground states.
Of the Lincoln Project’s $2.5 million, more than a quarter of it was spent in the Washington, DC, market presumably in the hope of catching the eye of a certain overly sensitive tweeter in the White House. The Lincoln Project has also bought time in South Dakota, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire to run ads when Trump is in town. New Hampshire, which Trump barely lost in 2016, is potentially a swing state, Oklahoma and South Dakota not so much.4
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As of last week, the Lincoln Project was not on the air in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, or Florida. When they have aired TV ads in those key states, the ads were only up for a few days at most. These are what political professionals call “show buys,” designed to get press attention without spending enough money to affect the election directly. The ad with the former Navy SEAL that many have lauded as the Lincoln Project’s most effective spot ran for one day on cable television. Unless you are on Twitter or watching Fox in whatever media market the president happens to be in, you are unlikely to see the ads that have caused so many Democrats to salivate.
Does this mean the Lincoln Project is staffed by a bunch of conservative Krassenstein-types hoping to cash in on the Resistance?
Not really. To their credit, the Lincoln Project is spending money to defeat incumbent GOP Senators. It would be one thing if they were only targeting Trump-loving bogeymen like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. But they are also running ads for Democrat Steve Bullock in his effort to defeat Steve Daines, who is the definition of a generic Republican.5 The Lincoln Project has also targeted Martha McSally in Arizona and Joni Ernst in Iowa. These efforts should be applauded.
There is also some strategic value in trolling Trump. The Lincoln Project took off when Trump had a Twitter tantrum about one of their ads in early May. While Trump taking grave offense at some perceived slight and then stumbling into an obvious political trap is not new, doing so in the middle of a once-a-century pandemic is very politically damaging. Time is the only non-renewable resource in a campaign and every day that Trump spends publicly adjudicating a dispute in the Conway household is a day he isn’t making the case for his own re-election.
Liberal proponents of the Lincoln Project tend to applaud them for two things: speed and virality. These two things are related and should not be discounted. There is no question that the Lincoln Project is playing a role in shifting media narratives against Trump by releasing punchy, emotionally evocative spots responding to Trump within the same news cycles. The fact that these attacks come from Republicans widely respected by the political press corps make them even more influential. This is of great value and shouldn’t be dismissed.
A few weeks ago, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted to praise the Lincoln Project, “Credit to these guys for moving fast and not needing to take a poll to know that a punch is going to land.” He’s right about one thing: Too much Democratic messaging is focused grouped into political applesauce (nutritious and inoffensive to anyone’s palate). But testing messages through focus groups or polls is a smart thing to do, particularly ahead of big expenditures. Before a campaign or PAC invests its limited budget on an ad campaign, they should know whether it will work with its intended audience. The Lincoln Project can forego message testing and get their ads up faster because they are putting nominal amounts of money behind so much of their work. And to an extent I’m glad they’re cutting these quick-and-dirty ads, and that they’ve had success online: Communication in the age of Facebook is about quantity and Republicans have a huge structural advantage. Between the plethora of secretly funded right-wing media startups to the state-adjacent propaganda operation at Fox to Ben Shapiro’s Facebook ponzi scheme, the right has more people making more content. The Lincoln Project turning out a rapid-fire series of viral videos is filling an important gap on the Democratic side, but everyone who is celebrating and funding their effort should know that the Lincoln Project’s goal is to win Twitter, not Wisconsin.6 As deft as it is, it’s a far cry from the work others are doing to win over enough voters to put Biden in the White House.
There is an old saying in Washington that the only people who believe Republican talking points are Democrats.7 This inherent sense that Republicans are better at politics than Democrats has been a feature of my party’s psychology since the Reagan era, even though Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one presidential election since 1992. Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove are famous mostly because Democrats have hyperinflated their roles to explain away our losses despite our more popular policies. So, it makes sense that Democrats are thrilled at the idea that a group of Super Villains has agreed to team up with us to take on the existential threat that Trump presents. Despite some of the backlash, supporting the Lincoln Project is not a de facto endorsement of the neoconservative policies of their former clients. The stakes are too high in this election to litmus tests allies, but the attention the Lincoln Project has received doesn’t match their actual impact. Priorities USA, Pacronym, and the other Democratic groups that have been taking the fight to Trump for months. They are spending more money, reaching more voters, and are more worthy of Democratic dollars.
Support the Lincoln Project if you want but know what you are supporting. And, oh yeah, make sure you cancel your recurring donation before the Lincoln Project starts running ads attacking President Biden for raising taxes on oil companies in early 2021.
1 Admittedly this is unfair, because these people were also largely responsible for George W. Bush getting elected twice, which means they are good at campaigns but owe a debt to society (which will be paid back in part if they help beat Trump).
2 Or so I am told, I would never watch that shit.
3 Put another way, does a political ad even exist if it doesn’t run on TV in Wisconsin or some other battleground state?
4 If Trump keeps fucking up his response to coronavirus and basing his entire campaign on protecting statues not people, this observation could change.
5 This is not a compliment.
6 Twitter has no electoral votes.
7 To be fair, I’m the only person who says this and I have been trying to make it a thing for a decade with very limited success.