Their latest effort, called Republican Voters Against Trump, is launching a $10 million advertising campaign with a somewhat different focus than those of the past. Rather than showing President Trump saying deranged things or listing his missteps, we hear from a Republican voter who has turned against him. Here’s the prototype:
There are reasons to doubt whether this can be effective. But I’d argue that it has a better chance of working than almost any other message.
First, “working” doesn’t mean persuading 20 percent or even 10 percent of Republicans to vote for Joe Biden. It needs only to mean creating a permission structure for them to do so — even if it means only a few thousand votes move in a few key states. That could be enough to swing the election.
And that’s what this message is about. It doesn’t try to convince its targets that Trump is bad; they know all the reasons that’s true. What it does is say, There are other Republicans, people just like you, who have the same doubts you do.
If you’re a Republican, even one disgusted with Trump, voting for a Democrat is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It calls your entire identity into question. In order to do it, you need to be convinced that you can choose Biden and still remain a Republican.
When I saw this ad, I immediately thought of one from 1964 that was almost identical, except that it used an actor reading lines. It was called “Confessions of a Republican,” in which Lyndon Johnson’s campaign told Republicans that it would not betray their party to vote against Barry Goldwater:
You’ll notice that the two ads start the same way. The man in the Republican Voters Against Trump ad says he voted for Trump in 2016 and talks about becoming a Republican in college, as the screen shows a picture of Ronald Reagan, an evocative Republican icon.
Similarly, the actor in the Johnson ad begins by saying, “I don’t know just why they wanted to call this a confession. ... I’ve always been a Republican, my father is, his father was.” Bona fides established, the ads go on to make a case, respectively, for why Trump and Goldwater are dangerous and don’t represent the GOP.
You can say that similar groups and prominent people such as William Kristol (one of the figures behind Republican Voters Against Trump) tried to make the same case in 2016 and failed, which is true. Trump got the votes of around 9 in 10 Republicans, about as well as the party’s candidate typically does (on that, Goldwater is the historical outlier; according to the American National Election Studies, only 73 percent of Republicans voted for him).
But two factors are different now than they were then. The first is that a Trump presidency is no longer hypothetical. While Trump has done plenty of things all Republicans like, they can no longer tell themselves he’ll grow into the job or that he won’t be disastrously incompetent in a crisis.
The second, and what may be just as important, is the Democratic nominee.
“You can’t overstate what the Clintons represent for Republicans,” Sarah Longwell, one of the leaders of Republican Voters Against Trump, told the New York Times. “Donald Trump’s corruption was offset by what they saw as her corruption.”
I’d put it a different way: It wasn’t about corruption so much as it was a white-hot loathing of Hillary Clinton nearly all Republicans shared, something nurtured over the course of the previous 25 years. You simply could not have found a Democrat who would encounter as much resistance to a “hold your nose and vote for her” message.
But Biden is not the same figure. It’s not that Republicans aren’t working hard to disqualify him in their own voters’ eyes, or that it won’t work for most of them. But there isn’t the same preexisting well of visceral hatred to draw on.
In 2018, the Democratic sweep was driven by suburban areas where there are plenty of moderate Republicans, especially women. There’s a good deal of evidence that these voters were pulled toward Democratic candidates out of disgust with Trump, but the Never Trumpers don’t actually want them to become Democrats, which is a high hurdle to clear.
They just want them to vote against Trump, this one time. And if that means telling themselves they’ll return to the GOP in 2024 once it nominates a saner candidate, that’s just fine.
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