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Silicon Valley megadonors unleash a last-minute, $100 million barrage of ads against Trump

Facebook billionaire co-founder Dustin Moskovitz has put more than $20 million into a little-known Democratic super PAC that is spending big.

Dustin Moskovitz poses with his hands clasped on a table.
Billionaire Dustin Moskovitz is making his biggest political play of the cycle.

A little-known Democratic super PAC backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest donors is quietly unleashing a torrent of television spending in the final weeks of the presidential campaign in a last-minute attempt to oust President Donald Trump, Recode has learned.

The barrage of late money — which includes at least $22 million from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz — figures among one of the most expensive and aggressive plays yet by tech billionaires, who have spent years studying how to maximize the return they get from each additional dollar they spend on politics. Moskovitz is placing his single biggest public bet yet on the evidence that TV ads that come just before Election Day are the best way to do that.

The super PAC, called Future Forward, has remained under the radar but is spending more than $100 million on television and digital in the final month of the campaign — more than any other group — on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden outside of the Biden campaign itself. And it has been leading a separate, previously unreported $28 million proposed campaign to elect a Democrat to the US Senate from Texas, Recode has learned.

Future Forward’s size and strategy is now moving more into the public view. It plans to report to the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday that it raised $66 million in just the 45 days between September 1 and October 15 — a haul powered by Silicon Valley billionaires like Twilio founder Jeff Lawson, longtime Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Moskovitz, who has been one of the most enigmatic Democratic megadonors of the Trump era.

Moskovitz’s team has told some allies over the course of the year that it has been preparing to make a splash late in the game and that they were a big believer in late television specifically. (Moskovitz’s chief adviser, Otis Reid, has been publicly skeptical about wasting money on ads early in the cycle.) The group has been closely associated with Moskovitz in Democratic fundraising circles for much of the calendar year, although his first donation to the group didn’t materialize until this summer.

Like other Silicon Valley donors new to politics in the Trump era, Moskovitz has sought to bring the brainy, data-driven approach that he has pioneered in his philanthropy to his political program in 2020. He has tried to calculate the “cost-per-net-Democratic-vote,” combing through academic literature to mathematically determine where each marginal dollar from him can make the biggest difference. Other significant Moskovitz bets this cycle have included millions to the Voter Participation Center, a voter-turnout organization that has been supercharged by tech money over the last two years, and Vote Tripling, a “relational organizing” approach to encourage friends to vote.

But the lead conclusion from Moskovitz’s research has been to invest in late TV ads that come just before Election Day, when the ads are still fresh on the minds of voters.

And in Future Forward, Moskovitz has found his perfect vehicle.

Future Forward’s signature message in its conversations with donors and other Democratic officials has been its focus on what it calls “content testing.” While it’s not unusual for an ad maker to test the results of a spot before airing it, Future Forward has stressed in these conversations that it has unique abilities to measure and predict an ad’s effectiveness by deploying clever experiments (although some TV veterans are skeptical of a secret sauce). The group has worked with other Democratic ad makers and its in-house team to make more than 100 different ads, although only about a dozen have made it to the airwaves.

The group spent much of 2020 testing and developing various ads — while barely spending a penny on TV before late September. Then it dropped the hammer.

Between September 29 and Election Day, Future Forward aired or booked about $106 million worth of TV ads, according to Advertising Analytics, a media-tracking firm — almost four times as much as the next closest pro-Biden outside group, Independence USA, during that period.

The super PAC, which was created in 2018, is at the forefront of a new wave of outside groups that are trying to bring social science methods and randomized controlled trials — the gold standard of experimental design — to modern campaigns. A new class of operatives, including Future Forward’s leaders Chauncey McLean, have trained their eyes on television advertising, one of the biggest expenses in presidential politics. They are conducting large-scale field experiments where an actual TV spot airs in the real world — instead of traditional survey experiments where a proposed spot is presented to test subjects — to assess and optimize an ad’s impact.

Unlike other groups such as the Lincoln Project, which have taken a more caustic approach toward Trump in their television campaigns to hammer on his flaws, Future Forward gleaned from its research that a largely positive, implicit contrast campaign tests more effectively. As part of its experimental approach, the group also prides itself on its willingness to go wide when it comes to testing creative messaging — essentially throwing lots of ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

The group plans to report on Tuesday that it raised about $20 million in September and another $46 million in the first 15 days of October. Major donations during that period include $6 million in total from Lawson and his wife, Erica; $5 million from crypto trader Sam Bankman-Fried; and three-quarters of a million more from Schmidt, bringing his total donation to the group to $2.5 million. $29 million of the October money came from the super PAC’s affiliated nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors. The group has also been recommended in private communications by the team of Reid Hoffman, another Silicon Valley megadonor.

Despite that windfall, the group has intentionally adopted a low profile, especially relative to other pro-Biden super PACs. It maintains a bare-bones website. Despite spending more than any other outside group in the homestretch, this is the first detailed article about it.

The group is also not limiting its ambitions to the presidential race. In a “confidential” four-page memo circulated to major donors last week and obtained by Recode, Future Forward and four other Democratic outside groups — Senate Majority PAC, the Strategic Victory Fund, Way to Win, and Mind the Gap — planned $28 million in advertising to boost MJ Hegar, the Democrat challenging Texas Sen. John Cornyn in an uphill race. $10 million of that money was expected to come from a Senate Majority PAC, according to the memo, while another $18 million needed to be raised as of last week for the groups to pull the trigger.

Since that memo, Senate Majority PAC announced an $8.6 million campaign — it made no mention of the rest of the big-donor cavalry joining them. The memo stated that Future Forward was raising the rest to implement the home run play, which began with a buy worth a few million dollars in the state on Tuesday.

“Based on an extensive analysis undertaken by Future Forward PAC and Senate Majority PAC (SMP), we believe that Democrats have a plausible chance to flip the TX Senate seat with a major financial investment in the race over the next week,” the groups wrote to donors last week. “We can push the odds of victory up significantly—from 23% to 35-55%—by blitzing the airwaves in the final two weeks.”

That’s the sort of mathy appeal that has made Future Forward a big player in Silicon Valley — all behind the scenes.

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