WASHINGTON — After months of getting outspent by Democrats online and on the airwaves, President Donald Trump’s campaign is striking back.
This week marks the first time this year that pro-Trump forces are significantly eclipsing their Democratic opponents in overall advertising — by around 2-to-1— activating a new phase of the 2020 race that Trump’s campaign manager is hyping as a “juggernaut Death Star … firing on all cylinders.”
During the first ten days of May, the Trump campaign and its allied America First Action super PAC are deploying $5.3 million in ads nationwide, compared to just over $2 million combined from leading Democratic super PACs, Priorities USA and American Bridge, and Joe Biden’s campaign, according to data provided to McClatchy by Advertising Analytics.
“Fire in the hole!” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted Thursday to release the newest TV spot that shows images of a dazed Biden downplaying the threat posed by China, the country where the coronavirus originated.
“In a few days we start pressing fire” Parscale promised. “He won’t know what hit him.”
The emerging resource gap between two parties spotlights the imminent challenge Biden faces as the Trump campaign begins to unleash millions of additional spending packed with searing attacks in the coming weeks. The ad blitz also comes as Biden is still working at chipping away at a mammoth fundraising deficit to an incumbent, while hamstrung by the constraints imposed by the pandemic.
And at this stage in the race, Trump allies believe that Biden can still be defined to the broader electorate, despite a nearly five-decade career as a public figure.
“Six months out, his name ID is high, their understanding of him is low,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of the America First Action super PAC. “It’s not anything that’s deep or substantive.”
Walsh said his group’s internal surveys showed that the most common positive attribute that voters recalled about Biden were that he was “President Obama’s guy” and “not Bernie (Sanders).”
The super PAC’s TV ads, placed in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, replay Biden’s prior comments calling the rise of China “a positive development.”
“He’s a well-known blank slate, and it’s our job to paint in some of those colors,” Walsh said.
In addition to China, one of the other more controversial lines of attack that is seeping into Republican advertising raises questions about Biden’s “cognitive decline,” as one Trump campaign adviser put it.
This week, the Trump campaign released a series of photos mocking Biden for appearing to be reading notes during an interview, wandering off screen during a virtual town hall and eating ice cream. The latest Trump TV spot includes a clip of a glassy-eyed Biden having to be prompted to speak in front of a camera and ends with the former vice president saying, “I’m not going nuts.”
The message is clear: Trump may be bombastic, but Biden has lost a step.
“Joe Biden was once a competent voice in Washington. But that’s long gone. He can barely string two sentences together,” said the Trump campaign adviser. “Every time he does an interview he gives more ammunition.”
Democrats argue that Biden’s personal likability remains the most powerful antidote to Trump that the GOP will struggle to reckon with.
“The problem they’re going to have is Joe Biden’s a likable guy. Why couldn’t we beat Bush twice? Because he was a f---ing likeable guy. The beer test really does matter here,” said Jim Messina, 2012 campaign manager for Barack Obama. “The ‘he’s not known’ thing? Jesus Christ. I mean, good luck.”
While the pro-Trump forces have spent the bulk of their ads on national broadcast and cable TV, Democrats note they have singularly targeted the majority of their spending around battleground states.
Priorities USA was the leading spender on Facebook digital ads in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin last week. In an example of the new heightened pace of the ad war, Priorities USA released a new commercial Thursday afternoon, labeling the new Trump ad a distraction from the truth.
“Trump’s vaunted campaign operation has allowed him to get badly outspent for nearly a year now, which has allowed us to frame his failed presidency for targeted voters, build models and continuously test content to increase the efficiency of our spending,” said Josh Schwerin, a senior strategist for Priorities USA. “Trump and his allies have over $200 million in the bank and we expect them to begin increasing their focus on states that actually matter in the general election.”
Other Democrats, who have been bracing for the Trump offensive, acknowledge Biden will never be able to match the arsenal of the incumbent president, but don’t think it will matter. They calculate that the impact of each candidate’s earned media remains far more potent than advertising in a heavily polarized political environment. And since the coronavirus outbreak has paralyzed the country and Biden’s visibility has shrunk, Trump’s polling numbers have dipped.
“I strongly disagree that being outspent by even $20 million is even going to make that big of a difference in Florida,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic strategist there.
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