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How the Lincoln Project's brutal anti-Trump ads could remake US politics

Updated 8:35 PM ET, Thu July 23, 2020

Editor's Note: Lincoln Mitchell teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His most recent book is "San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team." (Rutgers University Press, 2019) Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - The Lincoln Project has vaulted into the center of this presidential election through a barrage of the best campaign ads in the 2020 race. "This is how it starts," an ominous male voice intones as one spot opens with a black and white picture of the White House. The voice warns of a President out of control, a rogue attorney general and "shadowy men" who "snatch so-called enemies of the state" off the street.

Images of a frightening (and frightened) looking President Donald Trump fade into images of federal troops -- "faceless enforcers" -- arresting or beating peaceful demonstrators. "This is how freedom dies," says the narrator, urging Americans to register to vote in November. "Because if we don't, we know how it ends." The closing image fades to a phalanx of police in riot gear.

Another ad features a gentler-sounding female narrator. "Something's wrong with Donald Trump," she says. "He's shaky, weak. Trouble speaking. Trouble walking." Footage shows Trump using two hands to drink water during a speech and shuffling down a ramp after a speech at West Point. "The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, shaky, unfit president," notes the narrator. "Trump doesn't have the strength to lead. Nor the character to admit it."

Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen says these ads are meant for an audience of one: Trump himself. And they seem to have been successful at getting inside Trump's head, with the President taking pains to make a show of his ability to drink water with one hand at his Tulsa rally.

But will these ads get inside the heads of the voters enough to affect the election?

The Lincoln Project ads are unusual. They haven't been made by Democrats but by supporters of Trump's own party.

Founded by a group of Republicans who are not only disaffected with Trump and the Republicans who continue to support him, they're explicit in their support for Joe Biden. Among the project's more prominent members are George Conway, an influential conservative lawyer who is married to top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, as well as some of the party's most well-known political operatives including Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson and John Weaver. Their work is attracting attention across and beyond the political spectrum, from comedians to conservative critics to progressives who do not trust the Lincoln Project.

What is less certain than these strong reactions is whether the ability to trend on social media will translate into votes for Biden. The ads have had a relatively limited reach thus far. As of mid-July, the Lincoln Project's total spending was less than $10 million, although the group has indicated it plans to raise and spend considerably more than that. That is nowhere near enough money to buy enough airtime to reach uncommitted voters. For comparison, in the most competitive House races in 2018 total spending generally exceeded $15 million and in some cases was three or four times that high.

Many who view the Lincoln Project's work will see it on a friend's social media feed or because somebody emailed it to them. This kind of viral activity can travel far, but it's is less likely to reach the uncommitted voters that political campaigns need to target right now.

Television remains the most popular source of news in America, and a Pew Research Center study last year found that only 22% of Americans are on Twitter -- a group more likely to be disproportionately young and Democrat supporters.

At this point in the election, most of those who get served the ads online are already paying a lot of attention to politics and unlikely to change their votes. Moreover, although these ads may delight Biden supporters, as with all ads it is unclear how persuasive they will be to undecided voters. Political scientists have long wrestled with the question of which campaign tactics make the greatest impact and have yet to answer that question conclusively. For example, while it is conventional wisdom that the famous Willie Horton ad, with its racist dog whistle, was key to George H. W. Bush's victory in 1988, there has never been clear evidence to prove that.

The veteran consultants involved in the Lincoln Project appear sincere in their desire not just to beat Trump but to praise Biden. This appears to reflect a broader trend in American politics that may have a correspondingly larger impact on post-Trump America. Biden is benefiting from an unusually broad coalition that is attracting other disaffected Republicans, too. Campaigns by organizations like Republican Voters Against Trump, led by conservative activist William Kristol, and rumors that John Kasich, a longtime conservative Republican, is expected to speak at the Democratic convention in support of Biden are likely to help the former vice president maintain his comfortable lead in the polls.

While this undoubtedly will help Biden in the election, it may also ultimately change the tenor of his presidency.

If Biden wins, organizations like the Lincoln Project will have newfound influence and options. They will be among the many groups, including progressive Democratic activists, organized labor, LGBTQ voters and voters of color who can claim to have helped elect him. Unlike those other groups, the Lincoln Project, while virulently anti-Trump, is made up of conservatives. They will be well positioned to be a conservative counter to the progressives who would like to see a President Biden tack left once elected.

It will be difficult for a Biden administration to ignore the Lincoln Project's leadership after the election. Alternately, if Trump loses badly and brings his party down with him, currently a possibility but far from a certainty, there will be a need for a post-Trump conservative party. The Lincoln Project, having staked out political space as anti-Trump conservatives, will also be well positioned to be at the heart of that movement.

For Trump haters, each new Lincoln Project ad brings a jolt of excitement. For Trump lovers, each new ad is a source of outrage and anger. For Biden, should he win, the effect of the Lincoln Project's campaign will have been the empowerment of a handful of smart political consultants positioned to influence the new president or help remake conservative politics.


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