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What’s really going on with the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump, Republican-led PAC that’s pissing off lots of people

Twitter loves the ads. Does that matter?

Donald Trump walking past graffitied concrete walls.
Donald Trump walks back to the White House after his photo-op in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2020.
Brendan SmialowskiAFP via Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You’ve been online, so you’ve probably seen them.

You’ve definitely seen them if you’re on Twitter.

They’re punchy. Provocative. They don’t look like political ads you’ve seen on TV before. And they’re aimed directly at Donald Trump.

Like this:

And this:

And this:

They’re all made by the Lincoln Project, a political action committee led by high-profile Republicans who want to topple Trump, using firepower they’ve previously trained on Democrats.

And over the course of the last year, the group has moved from an insidery novelty to an online sensation to one that is raising real money. It might have a meaningful effect on this fall’s election.

Emphasis on “might.” The Lincoln Project’s strategy and tactics are a moving target, so it’s hard to get a grip on what it’s really doing and whether it will work. But the group most definitely has the attention of political insiders — some think it could be a useful ally to Joe Biden and actual Democrats; others suggest that it’s not much more than a publicity stunt. Either way, the Lincoln Project has your attention, whether you realize it or not.

What will it do with it?

An audience of one

The Lincoln Project is a high-concept pitch: What if Republican political operatives who used to spend their time fighting Barack Obama turned their sights on Trump? And, along the way, maybe most of the Republican Party they helped create?

It’s a catnip narrative, with echoes of great stories you love: Darth Vader, at the very last minute, switching sides to help Luke Skywalker defeat the Emperor.

It is also a narrative that drives some Democrats nuts. They argue that the Lincoln Project is at best a sideshow, doing things other campaigns have done and are doing that will have minimal impact on the 2020 election. (More recently, the group has been credibly accused of plagiarizing memes and videos, something that’s commonplace on social media but Not A Good Look for a group that prides itself on political and digital savvy and experience.)

At worst, they mutter, it may be a project that isn’t really meant to help Democrats but to do something else. Though they don’t know what that is.

Here’s what we know about the Lincoln Project right now: It is led by several “Never Trump” men who have many years of credentials at the top tier of Republican politics. Rick Wilson, for instance, worked on presidential campaigns for George H.W. Bush; Steve Schmidt worked for John McCain; John Weaver worked for both candidates. George Conway is a conservative lawyer who helped Paula Jones pursue a sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton; now he is best-known as a high-profile Trump critic married to Trump adviser/surrogate Kellyanne Conway.

After launching in the New York Times late last year, the campaign has steadily attracted interest from political junkies and, increasingly, mainstream media (a representative for the group has not responded to requests for comment).

And in recent months, they have started to raise real money from donors — according to federal election filings, they raised $17 million in the second quarter of this year. But they have yet to spend much money running their ads. So far, they have spent less than $8 million on ad buys, according to political ad tracker Advertising Analytics. For context: Democratic PAC American Bridge has spent $30 million on media so far; Priorities USA, another Democratic PAC, is spending $2 million per week in battleground states.

We also know their ads — often made using news footage and turned around at internet speed — are consistently popular on Twitter, where they often rack up millions of views along with commentary from frustrated Democrats who want to know why their own party can’t do the same thing.

Which gets at a significant part of the Lincoln Project’s appeal, at least among the extremely online set. Finally, the argument goes, someone is using the same tactics Trump used in the 2016 race — against Trump. You can fill in the ellipsis … if Biden wins, and the Lincoln Project gets credit for some of that, then maybe the future of political messaging and elections looks a lot like what we saw Trump harness in four years ago — except now, everyone’s doing it.

You can see it most strikingly in the group’s ad mocking Trump’s halting walk after an appearance at West Point, a direct and intentional echo of Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton’s supposed frailty four years ago.

On the other hand: Trump’s ads and comments attacking Clinton’s health didn’t exist in a vacuum — they piled onto months of conservative media talking points, echoed and amplified by Fox News, about the topic, which bubbled up easily into social and mainstream media.

In this election, there doesn’t appear to be a version of a 4chan-to-Breitbart-to-Fox News-to-the-New York Times cycle for the left — a way to move conversation, memes, and activation from the edges of the internet all the way to the center of mainstream media, which encourages the internet to keep at it. (Despite efforts to create it.) So you can feel the longing on Twitter that maybe the Lincoln Project will do the trick.

But the Twitter-centric nature of the Lincoln Project’s work — so far — is also the main critique from Democratic campaigners. They argue that getting eyeballs on viral anti-Trump content — particularly on Twitter — means you’re reaching people who are already voting against Trump.

“I think [the ads] are helpful,” says Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama aide who is now co-host of Pod Save America. “I think they are not as helpful as a lot of people think.”

Pfeiffer’s argument, echoed by other Democrats who are working on this year’s race, is that the Lincoln Project’s most barbed ads, which tend to generate the most attention and virality, are the ones least likely to convert an undecided voter or a wavering Trump voter to move over to Biden — if they see them at all.

“Negative ads can still work on Trump,” he says. “But they have to introduce new information to people, and they have to reach people where they are.”

Democratic operatives I’ve talked to who think the Lincoln Project is overhyped often point to Republican Voters Against Trump, another PAC with — just like the name says — the same mission statement as the Lincoln Project. But their ads, which can also generate retweets and views on Twitter, focus specifically on first-person testimonials, which they think will be more effective in moving votes:

This leads to another one of the major critiques you hear about the Lincoln Project: To date, at least, the project doesn’t seem interested in actually tipping a swing state, which could actually move a close election.

Instead, the biggest chunk of their ad spending — about $2 million, per ad tracking firm Medium Buying — has been in Washington, DC, where voters have nearly no impact on the election. Another $200,000 has been spent in New York City, where Trump received 18 percent of the vote in 2016.

The Lincoln Project says, for now, that they are mostly interested in one voter: Trump. And they are trying to reach him when he watches TV, either in the White House or at his estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, 40 minutes west of Manhattan.

In theory, Trump will see the ads, which are supposedly purposely built to upset him, during “executive time” — “to use his mental infirmity and addiction to television to freeze him and manipulate him,” as Schmidt told the Washington Post.

More plausibly, the Lincoln Project is hoping to needle Trump by getting the people who shape the discussion about politics, in Washington and New York, talking about and responding to the ads. It doesn’t matter how it gets to him or the people around him or the people supporting him, as long as it gets there.

The logic behind that strategy: If the Lincoln Project can distract Trump by focusing on them or their ads instead of doing ... something else, it’s worth it. And they say it’s working: They point to Trump tweets mocking the group, for instance. Or the fact that Trump spent an extended stretch of his failed rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, talking about his West Point walk, following the Lincoln Project clips.

And now they’re claiming credit for the demotion of former Trump campaign head Brad Parscale in mid-July, pointing to reporting from New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi. Trump saw this micro-targeted ad suggesting that Parscale was getting rich at Trump’s expense and asked him about it, according to Nuzzi.

Maybe that ad, which popped up in May, really did worry Trump for a second. Or maybe it planted a seed of doubt in his mind about Parscale, who got pushed out two months later.

On the other hand: Nuzzi’s story has copious details on the many other reasons Trump would can Parscale, ranging from the poisonous, backbiting vibe of the entire Trump ecosystem to the Tulsa fiasco to the fact that polls show Trump is losing the race.

Beyond that, it’s hard to argue that you need a dedicated team and millions of dollars to throw Donald Trump off balance. We’ve been watching him closely for five years, and at this point we can say, with confidence, that he’s always distracted. This is a president who follows up his tweet suggesting that this year’s election should be postponed with another one promoting a Long Island pizza place.

Some Lincoln Project critics assign darker motivations to the group’s work. “It’s cynical self-promotion,” says a Democratic operative working on this year’s campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The operative argued that Schmidt and company are trying to reach political and media elite in Washington and New York — not to influence their votes, but to burnish their reputations. “This is not an accident that they’re not talking to voters,” says another Democratic campaigner.

Other Democrats simply worry that money the Lincoln Project rounds up to defeat Trump will eventually be used for something else — maybe even for actual Republicans at some point. They argue that well-meaning donors who think they’re helping an anti-Trump group don’t realize they’re helping the people who helped create Trump, by creating a political climate that made his election possible.

We’ll have a better idea of what the Lincoln Project really wants to do in the next few months. The group’s founders, acknowledging their role in building a Republican Party they no longer identify with, have said they’re not solely concerned with Trump.

That’s why they’ve spent money targeting a handful of Republican senators in vulnerable races, including Susan Collins in Maine and Steve Daines in Montana (you can see J.L. Cauvin, who imitates Trump for a living, trying to tie them to the president in these Lincoln Project videos).

They’ve also said they intend to ramp up their ad buys in the coming months and spend “tens of millions of dollars” on ads aimed at both Trump and other Republicans in swing states; this week the group announced a $1 million buy targeted in Ohio and three other swing states.

And if that’s going to happen, they’ll need to raise more money, which means that some of those viral videos may serve a purpose, after all.

“If they can raise enough money against the buzz they create, they can raise enough money to run a very targeted campaign,” says Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist who runs Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “In a race like this, you can be more effective with a scalpel rather than a bazooka.”

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