Democratic ad makers think they’ve discovered Trump’s soft spot

After more than a year of polling, focus groups and message testing against the president, there’s a growing consensus about what damages Trump — and what doesn’t.

Donald Trump wasn’t halfway through his speech in Tulsa, Okla., and Democratic ad makers in Washington and New York were already cutting footage for an air raid on the slumping president.

They didn’t focus on the president’s curious monologue about his difficulties descending a ramp or drinking water at West Point, the small crowd size of the Tulsa event or even his use of the racist term “kung flu.” Instead, the ads zeroed in on Trump’s admission that he urged officials to “slow the [coronavirus] testing down.”

It’s a reflection of a growing consensus among Democrats about what kind of hits on Trump are most likely to persuade swing votersand which ones won’t. As in 2016, ad makers are focusing on Trump’s character. But unlike four years ago, they are no longer focusing on his character in isolation — rather they are pouring tens of millions of dollars into ads yoking his behavior to substantive policy issues surrounding the coronavirus, the economy and the civil unrest since the death of George Floyd.

You can’t chase the Trump clown car,” said Bradley Beychok, president of the progressive group American Bridge. “Him drinking water and throwing a glass is goofy and may make for a good meme, but it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things … What people care about is this outbreak.”

Until recently, it wasn’t entirely clear what, if anything, worked against Trump. From the moment he announced his presidential campaign five years ago, not even the most incendiary material seemed to cause significant damage. Not

  • calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” not
  • “blood coming out of her wherever,” not “
  • grab them by the p—y” — all of which were featured by Democrats in character-based ads attacking Trump.

By Election Day, most voters didn’t find Trump honest or trustworthy, according to exit polls. But they voted for him anyway. And throughout much of his first term, including his impeachment, Democrats struggled to find an anti-Trump message that gained traction.

In their preparations for 2020, outside Democratic groups spent more than a year surveying voters in swing states by phone and online. They convened in-person focus groups and enlisted voters in swing states to keep diaries of their media consumption.

Multiple outside groups said they began to test their ads more rigorously than in 2016, using online panels to determine how likely an ad was to either change a viewer’s impression of Trump or to change how he or she planned to vote. Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, alone expects to test more than 500 ads this cycle. Priorities, American Bridge and other outside groups, including organized labor, have been meeting regularly to share internal research and media plans.

“One thing we saw in polling a lot before the coronavirus outbreak is that people didn’t think he was a strong leader or a good leader, they complained about his Twitter,” said Nick Ahamed, analytics director at Priorities USA. “But they had a hard time connecting those character flaws they saw in him with their day-to-day experience.”

Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests, he said, “really made concrete for people the ways in which his leadership has direct consequences on them and their loved ones … It’s easier to make ads that talk about his leadership than before the outbreak.”

The advertising elements that appear to work, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democrats involved in message research, vary from ad to ad. Using Trump’s own words against him often tests well, as do charts and other graphics, which serve to highlight Trump’s distaste for science. Voters who swung from President Barack Obama to Trump in 2016 — and who regret it — are good messengers. And so is Joe Biden, whose voice is widely considered preferable to that of a professional narrator. Not only does he convey empathy, according to Democrats inside and outside Biden’s campaign, but using Biden’s voice “helps people think about him as president,” said Patrick Bonsignore, Biden’s director of paid media.

But the ad makers’ overarching takeaway from their research was this: While Trump may not be vulnerable on issues of character alone, as he demonstrated in 2016, he is vulnerable when character is tied to his policy record on the economy and health care.

“What we’ve learned form a lot of previous experience … is that quite honestly, people who work in politics can be bad prognosticators in terms of which ad will work,” said Patrick McHugh, Priorities’ executive director. “You see a lot of times the videos that go viral on Twitter … you test those ads, and more often than not they backlash … they can move voters toward Trump.”

For the negative ad industry, the coronavirus has been a bonanza because it inextricably linked both the economy and health care. On the evening of his Tulsa rally, American Bridge, which had already been working on an ad pummeling Trump for his response to the coronavirus, bookended its material with Trump’s acknowledgment that he urged officials to “slow the testing down.”

Biden’s campaign rushed a video onto social media skewering Trump for the admission. And Priorities USA, the Biden campaign’s preferred big-money vehicle, was on TV within days with Trump’s testing remarks in the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan.

Trump complained on Twitter that “the Democrats are doing totally false advertising.” But after the Democratic National Committee posted its first TV ads since 2016 — one asserting that Trump had “brought America down with him” and the other a more focused critique of his handling of China and trade — even the president acknowledged the effectiveness of the assault.

“On the campaign they’ll say such horrible things about me. It’s a very unfair business,” he said on Fox News. “But the ad [Democrats] did this morning, it’s a great ad for them.”

In one obvious way, assailing Trump is less complicated for Democrats than it was four years ago. Trump is the incumbent now, and for the first time he has a record of governance. Pointing out historic economic and public health crises in ads is not rocket science.

Trump’s approval ratings, both overall and on his handling of the coronavirus, have tracked downward since March, when outside Democratic groups began running advertisements against him on the issue. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week put public approval for his response to the coronavirus pandemic at 37 percent, the lowest mark on record.

“There are more voters on the table now than there have been in a long time,” Becca Siegel, Biden’s chief analytics officer, told POLITICO. “Many, many voters who are persuadable and open to hearing these messages.”

And Trump keeps providing fodder. As outside groups began running ads featuring Trump’s “slow the testing down” remark last week, one Democratic strategist said, “Everybody is going to put this into their ads. This is something people are going to see on their TVs … for the rest of the cycle.”

For Biden, it is difficult to argue anything isn’t working at the moment. He is flattening Trump in national polls and running ahead of him in most swing states.

Yet voters still know less about Biden than Trump, according to internal polling from both parties, and there is an undercurrent of tension within the Democratic Party about how much effort to spend attacking Trump versus building Biden up.

In a study based on data from tens thousands of survey participants — and cited frequently by Democrats — researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University found earlier this month that messages about the lesser-known candidate, Biden, were more effective at persuading voters than messages about Trump.

Echoing the study’s findings, David Doak, a retired longtime Democratic strategist and ad maker, said that while “the race is being decided right now by the negativity towards Trump … what I would do if I were the Biden [campaign] is to try and fill in that favorability, to strengthen what he’s getting there and move his favorability rating up.”

Jimmy Siegel, an ad maker who worked on Clinton’s 2008 campaign and for Michael Bloomberg this cycle, said, “You need more positive Biden stuff” — what another strategist called “more Biden cowbell.”

“I think Democrats have had a theory of the case against President Trump for a while, but it really hasn’t been until the last few months when it started finally getting traction,” said Mark Putnam, the famed Democratic ad maker who worked for Obama and also for Biden before parting ways with the campaign last year. “He almost seemed to have some kind of anti-gravity secret that allowed him to consistently screw things up and yet never pay a political price for it. And with just the way he’s handled one crisis after another in really the worst possible way, it’s finally sinking in.”

However, Putnam said, “That’s only half the battle … We also have to offer an alternative.”

Unite the Country, the super PAC that Putnam is working with, has released several TV and digital ads highlighting Biden’s biography and record on the economy, including a spot featuring Biden’s childhood home in in Scranton, Pa. — complete with the bed Biden slept in as a child that Putnam’s team found stored in the attic when they arrived.

And Biden’s campaign itself began working this month to define the former vice president — and Trump — for a general election audience, releasing two ads as part of a $15 million buy, his first major advertising offensive of the general election campaign.

Just as the outside Democratic groups did, Biden’s campaign tested those ads with online panels, finding versions that used Biden’s own voice performed “dramatically stronger” than those using a professional narrator, the Biden campaign’s Bonsignore said.

In one ad, Biden talks about the economy, offering only an implicit contrast with Trump.

But Biden’s other ad cuts a much sharper contrast — staying with Democrats’ relentless criticism of the incumbent. It includes footage of Trump posing with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House after officials forced protesters from the area, as well as an image of Trump’s “both sides” reaction to the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — an episode that has gained new resonance amid the racial unrest surrounding Floyd’s killing.

The ad recalled Hillary Clinton’s first ad of the 2016 general election, when Clinton used footage of Trump encouraging violence at a campaign rally and mocking a reporter’s disability to make a call for unity.

But there was one significant difference from the 2016 attack on Trump. Four years ago, said Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, issues of character proved irrelevant in general election advertising “because people weren’t voting on it” — there was no connection to draw between Trump’s character and a record of governance that did not yet exist.

This year, he said, “That is absolutely the weakest front for Trump … Things have changed so dramatically, and the connection between the character of the president and that president’s ability to protect people, whether it’s from economic collapse or pandemic, is really important.”

The contrast works, Devine said, because “people are so desperate to turn the page from what’s happening in America today.”

Mark Zuckerberg on Fact Checking

attempting to interfere but I hope will
also give us some confidence that our
systems are now more sophisticated to
proactively identify and address these
things on your question about political
ads I look from a business perspective
the very small percent of our business
that is made up of political ads does
not come anywhere close to justifying
the controversy that this incurs for our
company so this really is not about
this is unprincipled in giving people a
voice I believe that ads can be an
important part of voice I think
especially in the political process for
challenger candidates and for local
candidates or advocacy groups whose
message might not otherwise be covered
by the media having ads can be an
important way to inject your message
into the Internet me interrupt you for a
minute are you telling me I think as she
said to me before you plan on doing no
fact-checking on political ads
chairwoman our policy is that we do not
fact check politicians speech and the
reason for that is that we believe that
in a democracy it is important that
people can see for themselves what
politicians are saying political speech
is some of the most scrutinized speech
already in the world to in fact check on
any ads at all up yes
describe what you fact check on oh sure
actually thank you for the opportunity
to clarify Facebook itself actually does
not check it does not fact check what we
do is we have feedback that people in
our community don’t want to see viral
hoaxes or or kind of like that maybe
clear you do no fact-checking
on any ads is that correct chairwoman
what we do is we work with a set of
independent fact checkers who somebody
fact checks on ads you have you contract
with someone to do that is that right
chairwoman yes and tell me who is it
that they bag checked on a chairwoman
what we do is when content is getting a
lot of distribution and is flagged by
members of our community or by our
Technical Systems it can go into a queue
to be reviewed by a set of independent
fact checkers
they can’t fact check everything but the
things that they get to and if they part
something is false then we all right my
time has expired
and someone else will continue on this
line of questioning

Mark Zuckerberg’s Delusion of Consumer Consent

He said Facebook users want tailored ads. According to our research, that’s not true.

.. In a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook users want to see ads tailored to their interests. But the data show the opposite is true.
..large majorities don’t want personalized ads — and when they learn how companies find out information about them, even greater percentages don’t want them.
..To Mr. Zuckerberg, protecting ad personalization from privacy rules is key. His essay argues that regulatory intervention would take away a “free” goody from the public. Facebook makes virtually all its revenues from advertising, and it has created enormous amounts of data about the people who use Facebook and the larger internet. In his essay, Mr. Zuckerberg defends Facebook from a chorus of critics who rail against a business model that they argue uses and abuses people’s information under the guise of transparency, choice and control. Mr. Zuckerberg therefore has an interest in arguing that he and his colleagues well understand what his audience wants. “People consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant,” he writes. “That means we need to understand their interests.”
.. Sixty-one percent of respondents said no, they did not want tailored ads for products and services, 56 percent said no to tailored news, 86 percent said no to tailored political ads, and 46 percent said no to tailored discounts. But when we added in the results of the second set of questions about tracking people on that firm’s website, other websites and offline, the percentage that in the end decided they didn’t want tailoring ranged from 89 percent to 93 percent with political ads, 68 percent to 84 percent for commercial ads, 53 percent to 77 percent for discounts, and 64 percent to 83 percent for news.

This Man Must Decide Whether to Indict Israel’s Netanyahu

As an election approaches, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s low-key attorney general, is under intense pressure from both the prime minister and the public

When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say.

Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms.

Following two years of corruption probes targeting Mr. Netanyahu—and a recommendation by Israeli police to charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—Mr. Mandelblit is weighing whether to indict his boss. He must also decide whether to do so ahead of April elections the Israeli leader called early to run for a fifth term. Mr. Mandelblit’s decision could come as soon as February.

At the heart of the political drama are two men who have responded to the crisis in starkly different ways. Mr. Netanyahu has used angry bluster and a public campaign to cast doubt on the corruption charges and his handpicked attorney general. Mr. Mandelblit, like the dogged doctoral student he once was before his 25-year career in the legal branch of Israel’s military, has avoided the limelight and burrowed into the legal merits of the corruption charges, say friends and colleagues. A decision to indict a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented and could upend Israeli politics.

“He basically holds Israel’s political destiny in his hands,” said Shalom Lipner, a scholar with the Brookings Institution think tank who worked for several prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Mandelblit’s role is especially delicate because he also serves as the government’s top legal adviser, which means he’s both advising Mr. Netanyahu and judging him for alleged crimes against the state.

Notably, the two men continue to hold private meetings. Those have been the subject of several court challenges, including one from a government watchdog group that petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court last year to halt them. The country’s top court rejected it, saying Mr. Mandelblit can be trusted to maintain “a ‘Chinese Wall’ between his various responsibilities.”

.. But their working relationship hasn’t stopped the embattled prime minister from attacking the investigation. Recently, Mr. Netanyahu has released a series of videos urging Mr. Mandelblit not to announce any decision to indict him ahead of the April 9 elections, saying such a move would unfairly sway the outcome.

Mr. Netanyahu has also launched a slick social media campaign playing down some of the allegations—that he traded favors for better news coverage—by comparing bribery without money to soccer without Argentine player Lionel Messi or celebrity Kim Kardashian without her husband, the rapper Kanye West.

“What are they talking about when they say bribery? About money? About envelopes? About bank accounts? About Greek Islands? Not at all! They are talking about favorable coverage,” said a visibly upset Mr. Netanyahu in a prime time televised speech earlier this month.

Protesters, alleging that Mr. Mandelblit is delaying a decision to benefit his boss, have gathered outside his home every Saturday since late 2016, booing his name alongside effigies of Messrs. Netanyahu Mandelblit and the other major players in the probe— billionaires, media moguls and witnesses—all in prisoners’ garb. His father’s grave was recently vandalized and he has been the subject of threatening graffiti.

Netanyahu thought that by bringing the election ahead he would pre-empt Mandelblit and win the election and then deal with the legal issues after it,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” “But since Mandelblit does not seem to be intimidated it’s now becoming a major issue.”

Politically, it is more complicated. Even if he’s indicted, Mr. Netanyahu is still favored to win the elections, with recent polls showing his supporters saying he can still manage Israel’s economy and protect the nation’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge would be finding coalition partners willing to form a government with him if he’s indicted. He would get the chance to defend himself in a pre-indictment hearing before charges proceed.

The stress of the job shows. Mr. Mandelblit’s hair, once light red, has noticeably grayed.