It’s been evident for a long time that virtually nothing is working for Republican-aligned groups and GOP candidates who have tried to take Donald Trump down a peg or two.
A new memo from one such group crystallizes the problem, and it’s the latest indication that the outside groups might be inching toward the white flag of surrender.
The memo from a Club for Growth-aligned group called Win It Back, first reported by the New York Times’s Jonathan Swan and obtained by The Washington Post, contains strikingly candid findings after the group spent $6 million on ads in Iowa and South Carolina:
“All attempts to undermine [Trump’s] conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective, regardless of the setting (live surveys, online surveys, focus groups, controlled experiments).”“Every traditional post-production ad attacking President Trump either backfired or produced no impact on his ballot support and favorability. … This includes ads that primarily feature video of him saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth.”
The memo suggests that testimonial ads from former Trump supporters can work or at least not lead to a “backlash.” But that’s only when they are handled very gently:
They must exclude talking about issues, even ones on which Trump would seem to be out of step with the most passionate portion of the base. Those include his “promotion of vaccines, praise of Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci, insane government spending, failure to build the wall, recent attacks on pro-life legislation, refusal to fight woke issues [and] openness to gun control.”One pandemic-themed ad in Iowa tested well with focus groups but “produced a backlash in our online randomized controlled experiment — improving President Trump’s ballot support by four points and net favorability by 11 points.”Rather than focus on issues, the memo concludes, the ads can focus on broader themes “that do not produce a meaningful backlash.” Those include concerns about Trump being able to beat President Biden, the noise created by his various controversies, and his attacks on fellow conservatives.
The memo also describes a particularly intractable problem, which is voters essentially dismissing Trump’s liabilities out of hand:
Even when voters are shown something “otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it.”If you don’t make clear that the messenger is someone who once supported Trump, “the viewer will automatically put their guard up, assuming the messenger is just another Trump-hater whose opinion should be summarily dismissed.”
None of this is shocking stuff. It comports with virtually everything we’re seeing in the Republican nominating contest. It’s a picture of a personality-driven party, not a policy-driven one. The details are negligible and negotiable, and people will just adjust their priors to suit a candidate in whom they’ve invested so much.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) had to do cleanup work last month when he urged Republicans not to be “listless vessels” who simply go along with “whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning.” But this memo is merely the latest suggestion that that’s effectively the state of affairs among many in the party — they are happy to be such vessels. While DeSantis’s words might have been impolitic, his point stands.
The fact that we’re seeing this rather dour memo now shouldn’t escape notice. It comes as certain Trump-skeptical groups have begun to bow to the apparent reality of Trump being nominated again — he leads in polls by around 40 points.
Win It Back has spent only $5,000 on ads this month after spending $2.5 million in Iowa last month, according to NBC News. The report also notes that there is virtually nothing in the way of an anti-Trump conservative campaign in South Carolina. Anti-Trump Republicans are griping about the lack of air cover, despite big promises from the likes of the Koch network.
Another anti-Trump group, the Republican Accountability PAC, now flatly says it is giving up on the primary after spending $1 million on ads in Iowa.
“We have stopped spending money in the primary,” the PAC’s head, Sarah Longwell, told Reuters this week. “We decided we needed to hold our powder for the general election.”
And one of the earliest groups formed by conservatives to oppose Trump, the Lincoln Project, began promoting a video after Wednesday’s debate declaring “the primary is over.”
It’s a forgone conclusion, Trump will be the party’s nominee. Last night’s was not a debate for the presidency – it was an audition for a position in Trump’s cabinet. pic.twitter.com/gHQguCwZBJ
— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) September 29, 2023
“It’s a forgone conclusion,” the group declared. “Trump will be the party’s nominee.”
Trump himself seems to have effectively declared the primary over. At the end of the debate, he called for canceling future debates in the name of focusing on the general election.
On that count, at least, it seems Trump and his most well-heeled GOP critics are starting to agree.