The attack ads against Donald Trump are working — but seemingly only on voters who never liked him in the first place.
A huge swath of voters — not just Democrats but Republicans and independents too — feel less favorable about Trump after watching ads that paint him as a flip-flopper who supports Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood, according to our new poll conducted by media and polling company Morning Consult.
But his own supporters? They remain unswayed or think more favorably of Trump after these attack ads. These are largely white, Republican men who don't have a college degree, didn't vote in 2012 and 2014, and make less than $50,000 a year — all characteristics of voters who are likely to support Trump. This speaks to the challenge that establishment Republicans have faced in wooing Trump fans, through either ads or other means: Poll after poll has shown that Trump supporters decided to support him months ago, as if to say there is little that could change their minds.
Trump supporters are loyal, and Trump knows it
Primary exit polls find that Trump supporters are especially committed to their candidate. In Iowa, 39 percent of voters who decided their allegiances more than a month before the caucuses were Trump supporters; in New Hampshire, it was 58 percent; in Nevada, it was 59 percent.
This quote from a 71-year-old Trump supporter illustrates this loyalty in an almost creepy fashion. She told the New York Times that "nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren" would stop her from voting for him. And Trump knows this.
The attacks ads don't address this fervor, this anger. Rather, they paint Trump as a bad Republican and a bad businessman. They paint him as someone who once held beliefs that are diametrically opposed to conservative ideals. Very few even make you think about whether Trump would be a bad president.
For example, we polled this attack ad, which shows Trump saying he supports universal health care and Barack Obama's stimulus package, and that he's more of a Democrat than anything.
Again, a lot of voters feel less favorable about him afterward. But many people feel the same; they've already made their minds up about him, and this information isn't changing that. For people who dislike him, this seems to be piling on. But Trump supporters are basically saying: We know who he is, and we don't care.
Here's another one of the ads we polled, which we showed to 128 voters. Almost 40 percent of them felt worse about Trump after watching this commercial, including a big chunk of Republicans:
The people who are more likely to support Trump saw this ad and felt the same or better about Trump.
For example, about 74 percent of men said this ad had no impact or a positive impact on how they felt about Trump. (Compare that with 47 percent of women.)
The same goes for about two in three white voters, about two in three voters who earn less than $50,000 a year, and about two in three voters who live in rural areas.
Calling Trump a bad Republican clearly doesn't resonate with Trump supporters. So what's left?
What's been exceedingly difficult, for both admakers and opposing campaigns, is talking to Trump supporters with a level of trust. If you look at how credible Republicans think these attack ads are, the most common answer is right in the middle between very credible and not at all credible. It's almost as if they don't even know what to believe, but that it might not even matter.
Here's another ad that illustrates this:
But given Trump's campaign thus far, it's important to look at what these ads don't do.
They don't call him out for being racist, for inciting and promoting violence, or for insulting women. (Jeb Bush tried to call out Trump for insulting a disabled reporter, but it was toothless. Marco Rubio has only recently started calling out Trump's behavior.) No one is calling him out for assembling a base of voters who have a history of voting for segregationists and a tendency to support those with authoritarian philosophies.
And no one calls him out for taking advantage of people who really do have reason to be angry with what happened to them in the past couple of decades, whether through their own fault or not. As this brilliant New York Times piece shows, Trump wins the most support in areas where people are largely white with no high school diploma, where a high percentage of people live in mobile homes, where people have "old economy" jobs, and where people have a low labor participation rate.
Why haven't attack ads touched this? We know campaign ads are already inefficient, and in this election cycle, trying to break through the media noise around Trump's antics would be nearly impossible. So it would take something special to pierce through the haze.
Trump attack ads have yet to tap into the underlying fear of people who are terrified of him winning
Opponents have a lot of concrete things on which to attack Trump. But in the primary, no one has yet weaved this together into the kind of ad that paints Trump's candidacy as terrifying.
Political ads have tapped into this fear before, and it's been quite controversial. The most famous is probably Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 ad "Daisy," which juxtaposes images of an innocent girl with an atomic explosion. It hints that voting for his opponent, Barry Goldwater, who had a hawkish position on nuclear weapons, would lead to this:
Right now, the attacks during the GOP primary have to walk the line between making people not support Trump and still supporting the party. They seem to be holding back. But if Trump is the Republican nominee, attacks ads from progressive groups will no longer need to win over Trump supporters. They merely have to keep enough Republicans home or scare Democrats enough to turn out.
And given Trump's campaign thus far, there is a lot of room for opponents to make a terrifying attack ad — one that depicts a Trump presidency causing a dystopian future.
Already, multiple people have compared Trump's rise with that of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. One of the most popular stories on this site was about the first New York Times story on Hitler. The story doesn't even mention Trump, but it lays out the parallels between the two.
This kind of attack ad always flirts with being crass. But these comparisons seem to tap into a concrete, underlying fear of what a demagogue can do to even a functioning democratic society. It's these breadcrumbs that the anti-Trump Republicans haven't connected for voters, at least not yet. But given the trajectory of this election season, that seems unlikely to last.