Democratic Ad Campaign Spotlights Trump Voters With Regrets
A Democratic group unveiled a $3 million advertising campaign Tuesday featuring people who supported President Trump but now regret it, the first wave of a yearlong effort to reclaim some of the voters in the industrial Midwest who helped tip the 2016 election.
The group, American Bridge, will air commercials in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that are first-person testimonials from residents of each state explaining why they backed Mr. Trump in 2016 and why they will not do so again next year. While it’s not uncommon to spotlight voters in political advertising, these commercials feature no narration and are set, documentary-style, in the homes and towns of those on camera.
“We want to create a permission structure in these communities,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge. “We want them to know, ‘It wasn’t just me.’ But you have to create space for people to defect.”
The voters featured in the commercials all focus on Mr. Trump’s record, and what they say is his self-focus and lack of accomplishments in their communities, while avoiding issues that often consume Washington, like impeachment or Mr. Trump’s inflammatory language. Speaking in personal terms, they acknowledge that they supported the president because they thought that, as a political outsider, he would be a more effective change agent than the elected officials who won the White House every four years, until him.
One participant, Lori Malburg from Romeo, Mich., was blunt about her feelings of regret.
“I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I voted for Donald Trump at this point,” Ms. Malburg says in the spot that features her and her hometown, which is part of a storied swing county, Macomb, that flipped from Democrat to Republican three years ago.
The advertising campaign, which will include broadcast television, radio and online spots, comes at a moment when many Democrats have been expressing alarm that Mr. Trump’s heavy campaign spending on digital ads has been all but uncontested. But now, as the Democratic presidential primary appears as uncertain as ever, a handful of liberal groups are working to match the president’s re-election efforts.
American Bridge plans to eventually spend about $50 million in the coming year as part of this effort and hopes to feature new, local voices in each wave of ads. While the initial focus will be on Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — each of which supported Mr. Trump by less than a single point — the group may add Florida to the lineup next year.
“What we got wrong in 2016 is that we spent all our time compiling Trump’s record, saying look at how gross and despicable this man is, but we never turned the mirror around on the voters,” said Mr. Beychok. “So this is going to be about daily economic life in these communities — not impeachment, Ukraine or his tweets.”
The commercials are plainly aimed at the white working-class voters who supported former President Barack Obama’s campaigns but shifted to Mr. Trump in 2016. It’s a constituency that is increasingly aligned with Republicans, leading some Democrats to question whether it’s worth the effort needed to win them back. But officials at American Bridge say they need to make only modest inroads with these voters to take back the Midwestern states they lost.
“We don’t necessarily think we can flip back all the Obama-to-Trump counties, but we do feel we can drive his margin down in them,” said David Brock, the group's chairman and co-founder.
Originally known as an opposition research firm, American Bridge is seeking to expand its footprint at a moment when Democrats are out of power in the White House and there is no clear party leader. The group has brought on a host of prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Jim Messina, who ran Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election.
“While our candidates are fighting for the Democratic nomination, we cannot let Trump have a clear runway to the general election,” said Mr. Messina. “In 2012, we put Mitt Romney on the defensive from the beginning and he was never able to recover. With an arguably smaller map this cycle, we have to compete for every vote, and this early effort will be a critical component of success in November 2020.”
Part of the group’s challenge in such a polarized moment, however, will be finding people in their communities willing to appear on television speaking in personal terms about politics. Mr. Beychok said the group was using paid canvassers to find people willing to express their views and monitoring national and local media sources, including letters to the editor pages, for signs of discontent with Mr. Trump. (The disaffected Trump voter who appeared in the Pennsylvania spot — Mark Graham of Erie, Pa. — was featured in a New York Times article last month.)
He said the group may alter its message to correspond with the moment — spotlighting taxes during tax season or tariffs during harvest, for example — but that one element would remain the same.
“It has to be local, local, local,” said Mr. Beychok.
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