The Lincoln Project is trolling Trump. But can it sway voters?

The Lincoln Project is trolling Trump. But can it sway voters?June 27, 2020

The moment President Donald Trump started tweeting at 12:46 a.m. about the “RINO Republicans” at the Lincoln Project who’d just run an ad attacking his response to the pandemic, Reed Galen knew his hunch was right: you can trigger a Trump freakout with a little bit of planning and pop psychology.

Galen had co-founded the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC run by Republicans, with the goal of convincing Americans to vote against him in November. In May, the group thought Trump’s response to the pandemic had created the perfect opportunity to both make their case. Off of a brainwave that cofounder George Conway had during a conversation with his wife, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, Galen and his small team guessed Trump would be particularly enraged by an in-the-moment ad that portrayed the president as making Americans “weaker, sicker and poorer” than ever before. And they figured the best bet to get to the president would be to target Trump where he was, Washington, D.C., on the channel he watches, Fox News, when he was most likely to be watching, at night.

“He’s always gonna be watching Fox News at night in the residence,” said Galen, a GOP consultant who had worked for George W. Bush, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What they hadn’t expected, though, was that Trump would single out nearly every person involved in the Lincoln Project by name — Kellyanne Conway’s “deranged loser of a husband, Moonface” Conway, “Crazed” Rick Wilson, “LOSERS” who had consulted for “loser” candidates.

To Galen, it was a sign that the Lincoln Project — the first phase, at least — was working.

“It’s not just pissing off Donald Trump. Anybody could do that,” Galen said in an interview, though he admitted to “a modicum of enjoyment” from being the topic of midnight tweetstorm. “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.”

In the past few months, the Lincoln Project — a PAC with not much funding, as far as PACs go — has successfully established itself as a squatter in Trump’s mental space, thanks to several factors: members each boasting hundreds of thousands of social media followers, rapidly cut ads that respond to current events and a single-minded focus on buying airtime wherever Trump is most likely to be binging cable news that day, whether it’s the D.C. market or his golf courses across the country. And every time Trump freaks out — or every time the media covers his freakout — the Lincoln Project scores an incalculable amount of earned media, and millions of views online to boot.

But though the PAC has successfully caught Trump’s attention — The Daily Beast reported the campaign spent $400,000 on ads in the D.C. market in part so Trump would feel less threatened by Lincoln Project ads — Trump’s critics worry that the ads, as well cut and as troll-effective as they are, may not actually work to “prosecute the case” against his re-election, as the group vowed to do back in December.

“I love seeing their stuff. Their recent ad is my pinned tweet,” said Robert Wolf, a top Democratic donor who said he’s considering donating to the group. “All the Democrats love watching what they’re doing, but I’m not sure yet if they are preaching to the choir or actually moving Republicans away from Trump to Biden. Either way, it’s still a net positive.”

When the Lincoln Project — or “the LP,” as cofounder Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP ad maker, calls it — launched in December of 2019, the group included a trollish cadre of social media-savvy Never Trumpers with experience running campaigns, though several of them still have not met each other. The team promised it would prosecute the case against Trump, explaining to voters why a rising stock market (pre-coronavirus) wasn’t enough to reelect the president. Yet the group’s first round of ads, cut during Trump’s impeachment trial, got lost in the process, racking up hundreds of thousands of views at best.

With the pandemic, however, Trump has made the case against himself, Galen argued. From his early dismissals of the burgeoning outbreak to his suggestion that injecting “disinfectant” into the lungs might help fight coronavirus, and his flat-out insistence that he wanted to slow testing down in order to suppress the number of COVID-19 cases, the president has generated his own attack ad copy.

“We already had a plan in place which was prosecute him, prosecute him, prosecute him,” Galen said. “The difference is that he became a much weaker defendant, all on his own, because of his own faults.”

As far as spending goes, the Lincoln Project is hardly blitzing the nation with those ads. Since the group launched, the group has spent $2.75 million on TV ads, as well as another $1.2 million on Facebook ads — far short of the tens of millions some larger super PACs have planned for 2020.

Two-thirds of its TV spending is focused on the presidential race, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. The spots both boost Biden and eviscerate Trump. Notably, though, the group’s most recent ad — which is currently pinned to the top of its Twitter account — lionizes Biden’s leadership qualities. The PAC has also started cutting ads for Democratic Senate candidates like Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana — a sign, their GOP detractors say, that nullifies the members’ argument they are conservatives worried about the soul of the party.

“I think it’s one thing to have your own view, and if you so choose to not support Trump’s reelection or support someone else,” Matt Mackowiak, a veteran GOP communications strategist, the president of Potomac Strategy Group, and a Trump supporter. “I think it’s another to go well beyond that with what they’re doing, to try and basically flip the Senate. You cannot call yourself a Republican and support a Democratic majority in the Senate.”

The group’s mission to troll the president is evident in its ad buys. Its longest sustained presence on TV is a series of ads that have played nearly non-stop since early March on cable stations in Washington, D.C., aimed at its audience of one. The group has spent just under $380,000 on TV ads there, airing on MSNBC, Fox News and C-SPAN.

Twice in June, the group also dropped buys in New Jersey cable markets, timed with Trump’s expected weekend golfing trips to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. — one planned visit for this weekend was scrapped at the last minute. It also placed a minute-long ad in Tulsa, Okla., to coincide with the president’s campaign rally there last weekend, splicing together side-by-side clips of segregationist George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, and Trump.

And, of course, going viral online is essentially free, given the Lincoln Project’s million-plus Twitter followers, and the combined millions who all follow Conway, Wilson, Schmidt and the rest.

Galen said that a single video can get a million views in three hours, and two million by the end of the day.

“Look, Twitter’s not the real world,” he conceded. “But you generate enough heat and enough energy there, it starts to spin stuff off into the real world.”

Galen noted the group’s social media presence has built a fanbase in the media, in the donor class and among extremely online political junkies. And Trump’s after-hours angry tweeting about the group, as well as the reports about him seething behind the scenes, only creates more Lincoln Project groupies.

“No other group in the space has been able, at any point, to drive Trump’s behavior as we’ve been able to do, and we think there’s an enormous value add on that,” Wilson said in an interview.

Those around Trump and backing him in the broader GOP world — which is nearly all Republicans — are quick to dismiss the Lincoln Project as self-indulgent.

“You cannot make an argument that an ad that Trump sees is going to affect the election,” Mackowiak said. “If it’s not airing in battleground states at a saturation level, it doesn’t matter. It’s a horrendous waste of money.”

As for the group’s ability to get under Trump’s skin, Mackowiak argued it only had an impact on the “Acela corridor” class.

Over at the White House, one senior official dismissively replied, “Who?” when asked about whether Trump had fretted about the Lincoln Project ads.

Ian Russell, a Democratic media consultant who reviewed the group’s spending over the last three months, sees a strategy to build awareness first, then use that to launch a second phase.

The spending levels — both on presidential ads and in contested Senate races — are “mostly show buys,” Russell said, and they won’t “move numbers.” “It’s more about them trying to get attention, oxygen. And Trump, at least, has played right into their hands, which I’m sure is fundraising gold for them.”

Indeed, Wilson said the group’s fundraising, email list and social media following had grown as a direct response to the president’s reported anger towards them, a phenomenon similar to the “Trump bump” that several media outlets experienced at the beginning of his administration.

“We are already out talking to voters and we’re already putting together the ability to target and communicate with a selective group of voters who are going to make the difference in key swing states,” he said.

With less than 130 days before the election, and a pandemic making traditional campaigning near-impossible, it’s still unclear how — and if — the Lincoln Project can deploy the assets that it is building into something that can flip votes. After all, as Galen himself admitted, it’s not that hard to infuriate Trump with something like an ad showing him simply shuffling down a ramp and struggling to sip water.

But while the group plots that second phase, their non-traditional strategy of playing mind games with the president shall continue, Wilson declared.

“Other groups do what they do, we’re here to do what we do,” he said. “And never the twain shall meet.”

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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