While Biden, Warren, Bernie, Harris and the rest of the presidential candidates battle for their party’s nomination, other Democrats are fighting Trump on his own turf.
Driven by the fear that the president’s reelect can evangelize at will to general-election voters as the Democrats struggle amongst themselves, PACs on the left have launched projects to use targeted digital content and advertising to pick away at Trump’s support in battleground states between now and next summer. In the process, they give us a glimpse into the state of the art of digital political persuasion.
But first, what they’re up against. Trump’s team mastered the art of social-media ad outreach on a vast scale in 2016, often reaching small segments of the electorate with messages designed to appeal just to them.
This time around, Trump’s reelection campaign has spent at least $5 million on Facebook just since the beginning of June, buying ads designed to rile up his base and build his grassroots donor list. Democrats and journalists may point out that Trump’s Facebook advertising can be misleading, but careful targeting ensures that it reaches an audience primed to respond positively. In at least one case, campaign pro-gun ads were aimed at men aged 45-54 in a single state.
The thought that Trump’s paid messaging might go unanswered for an entire year has driven Democratic organizations including Priorities USA and American Bridge to launch the kind of large-scale, multi-state digital advertising campaigns we usually expect from political parties and presidential campaigns. Priorities plans to spend $100 million between now and next summer, with American Bridge chipping in another $50 million. In both cases, they’ll focus on issues designed to peel off Trump’s support in battleground states around the edges.
Priorities recently announced a series of ads focused on the economy, for example, including versions that feature “testimonial videos of people talking about their struggles.” Other ads in the package will amplify news stories or try to catch people in the targeted areas searching for relevant topics online.
American Bridge also plans a local focus for its digital advertising, supported by reports it’s assembled to highlight what it sees as the pain Trump’s policies have inflicted on particular communities. During a recent campaign to dent Trump’s support in rural battlegrounds, for example, the group contrasted job losses in Pennsylvania companies with the benefits their CEOs reaped from recent Republican tax cuts. Like Priorities USA, American Bridge will also feature local residents talking directly to their neighbors via online video.
Neither organization could hope to convert significant numbers of hardcore Trump supporters, but they may find success on the margins. People ready to hop in their cars to go to a Trump rally will ignore a digital ad that challenges their beliefs, but their neighbors down the block might be more open to it.
Considering the extent to which white rural America has swung to Trump, even cutting his percentages a small amount in the right counties may make enough of a difference to elect a Democratic president — or a state legislator.
These ads may be some of the few pieces of negative information about the president that pierce the Fox News/Limbaugh/Breitbart bubble. If you live in Trump country, like the part of Texas where I grew up, a white voter can go a long time without encountering a Democratic idea in an undistorted state.
Of course, Trump will surely attempt a similar trick with Democratic voters, following up on his 2016 campaign’s work to undermine Hillary Clinton’s support among black voters and other left-leaning demographic groups. Perhaps this time he’ll target Latino business owners or upscale suburban women with content designed to remind them of past pro-Republican sympathies, hoping to shift the margins in the urban-adjacent counties that swung to the Democrats in 2018.
Persuasion advertising like that planned by Priorities USA and American Bridge will make the most difference if Democrats fight for the presidential nomination past next spring since a nominee-in-making won’t have the luxury of spending scarce resources on swing voters in states without a pending primary. But if an Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden locks it all up early, the campaign will have the time to indulge in persuasion ads designed to dampen Trump’s support on his own ground.
If Democrats really want to make serious inroads in Trump country, though, they’re looking at a battle that would last for years, not just a few months before an election. Whether the party or any PAC could take on a task of that magnitude is an open question, but it’s one that Democratic activists should be asking.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.