When the Republican Presidential-primary season began this spring, one element seemed different than in past cycles: the Party’s donors—its billionaires and multimillionaires and assorted invisible hands—were lining up against the front-runner, Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, raised an eye-popping hundred and thirty million dollars before the Florida governor’s campaign was two months old. Leaders from the Club for Growth, the influential small-government lobby, launched a pac devoted to moving the Party’s voters past Trump. “The last three elections show he’s lost,” the group’s president, the former congressman David McIntosh, said. Americans for Prosperity Action, the super PAC affiliated with the Koch network, announced that it was committing seventy million dollars to stopping Trump from becoming President again, twenty-five million of which was pledged directly by Koch Industries. Of all the anti-Trump commitments, this one was perhaps the most striking: for a generation, the G.O.P. almost definitionally could not be said to be for something if Charles Koch was against it.
But, as the campaign has moved from the heightened anticipation of the early summer to the grinding Iowa-New Hampshire circuit of the fall, the impact of all these pledges of money has, to put it charitably, been faint. On the trail, you will sometimes hear rumors of Stop Trump activity—one operative affiliated with a rival campaign told me that his canvassers in Iowa had come across Americans for Prosperity’s anti-Trump literature left at voters’ doors. Even the more visible efforts have been a little timid. During the first Republican debate, the Koch-affiliated super pac paid for a thirty-second ad in which a woman in a cardigan and jeans stands on a white soundstage and speaks directly to the camera: “I’m just so tired of it all. The drama and chaos of Donald Trump. It’s all about him, and not about us. His obsession with 2020, revenge, and now all of the indictments. It’s exhausting.” She concludes, “To beat Joe Biden, we have to move on from Donald Trump.”
The ad avoided criticizing Trump on any policy issue and declined to even mention January 6th directly, instead gathering a fog of loose allusions. It also had some familiar elements. The Club for Growth has been paying to air a sixty-second ad in Iowa, in which a middle-aged man (“John”) sits on his front steps and says that he had twice voted for Trump but won’t do so this time. “So many distractions. The constant fighting, there’s just something every day, and I’m not sure he can focus on moving the country forward,” John says, over video of him pulling the cord on a lawnmower. The Republican Accountability Project, meanwhile, has spent one and a half million dollars to air a thirty-second spot (“Fran”) in Iowa: “There’s so many indictments against him,” Fran says, after affirming that she—like John—voted for him twice. “The next Republican candidate has to be somebody that can convince swing voters, independents, to vote for them, because Donald Trump can’t.”
There are essentially three phases to a super PAC’s narrative arc, an operative affiliated with a Trump challenger told me a few days ago. First, you introduce an idea; then you position it ideologically; then you make your case. At the moment, the operative said, the Stop Trump campaigns are stuck at the “introduce” stage. If you were a Republican voter in Iowa this summer, this was more or less the anti-Trump line you were being introduced to: that he was chaotic, that he was exhausting, and, perhaps most important, that he couldn’t beat Biden. But there was little messaging to suggest what any given Republican voter might do about it. “It’s the political equivalent of hanging up a no-smoking sign,” the operative said.
The total implosion of the DeSantis campaign, he went on, means that there is currently no clear alternative to Trump, and that makes it close to impossible for an unaffiliated super pac to position itself ideologically. “It constrains you because the potential Trump alternatives are all over the map,” the operative said. “You can’t ideologically position him, because where is he compared to everyone else? Who’s the alternative? And then making the case concretely is reduced to electability concerns.” And those, the operative said, were fading, as polls this summer have shown Trump neck and neck with Biden. “It’s a huge problem. It’s like the inverse of 2012, where Romney was able to stave off pushes from the right, from Gingrich and Santorum, because Obama was getting stronger.” Now the impression might be that Biden is so weak electorally that even Trump could beat him. The operative told me, “I do think, for what it’s worth, people are dramatically underestimating the prospect of a second Trump Presidency.” [Continue reading…]