Joe Biden’s campaign swore off negative advertising the day President Donald Trump announced that he tested positive for Covid-19.
Democratic and anti-Trump outside groups are taking a different road: Convinced that Trump would never make the same commitment if the roles were reversed, they’re breaking with Biden and continuing to launch attack ads.
Priorities USA, the super PAC that Biden’s team has signaled it prefers, aired spots over the weekend that blasted Trump for downplaying the coronavirus pandemic and lying “more than 20,000 times as president.” American Bridge 21st Century and Acronym said they’re not stopping their critical ads either.
The Lincoln Project, an independent expenditure group created by never-Trump Republicans, is also full steam ahead.
The hardball approach to the president as he recovers gives Biden air cover as he pulls back on negative spots, enabling him to project empathy and a reverence for norms. At the same time, it allows his supporters — who have a different calculus — to continue their no-holds-barred ad strategy against Trump. The president’s team is already seeking to leverage his battle with the coronavirus for political advantage.
“Over the course of the weekend, it became very clear that Trump wasn’t going to change his behavior and was going to continue to put people at risk,” said Josh Schwerin, the communications director for Priorities USA. “It became quickly apparent that there was no reason for us to change course.”
Even before Trump left the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday, some political operatives at outside groups said the Biden campaign should also dispense with the civility and fire away at the president. After all, they said, Trump is still whacking Biden with negative ads.
“They’ve continued to attack Joe Biden on social media, on paid media, on digital advertising, using all the mechanisms of their campaign,” said Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project. “Unilateral disarmament is never a good idea and I’m hopeful that the Biden campaign will recognize this in the next 24 hours and get back on the ball here to make sure the playing field does not become unbalanced.”
The Trump campaign, which flatly rejected taking its own negative ads off the air, also called the move by Biden insincere, saying negative ads were still airing. “Joe Biden’s negative ads did not come down and were still running three days later,” said Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s communications director. “If the rule is you don’t attack the guy in the hospital, why would the president pull down his own ads?”
But data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics that was shared with POLITICO show that Biden’s negative ad traffic decreased dramatically. On Oct. 1, the day before the president’s diagnosis became public, the campaign aired over 300 spots nationwide that the tracker classified as negative, 2,100 positive spots and 7,100 “contrast” spots, more of a gray-zone classification.
On Oct. 3, the day following the president’s hospitalization, the campaign aired just 29 spots classified as negative, a bit under 1,400 contrast spots and nearly 3,700 positive spots. The remaining trickle of ads coded as negative are likely a result of stations being slow to pull content, a common occurrence in last-minute changes to large TV campaigns.
On Monday, the first full weekday after following Trump’s hospitalization (and the day he left Walter Reed), the campaign aired 2 negative spots, 1,400 contrast spots and 7,400 positive ones.
Some Biden supporters, including Wilson, told POLITICO they believe that now is the perfect time to draw a contrast between the former vice president’s cautious approach toward Covid-19 and Trump’s recklessness in handling it, even within his own ranks. But others were unperturbed by the campaign’s decision, assuming the decision likely was made by Biden himself.
“I think it’s a safe bet that this came from the candidate,” Schwerin said. “Some of these decisions are not about what helps us win tomorrow … and if Biden thought that it was the wrong thing to be attacking his opponent while he was in the hospital, I understand that.”
Some Democrats have argued that it’s a smart strategic shift for Biden to shelve the attack ads because positive spots are the most persuasive to swing voters.
“The ads that test the best are positive ads that are very specific about what Joe Biden will do as president,” said Steve Schale, executive director of the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. “In some elections, you have to disqualify the incumbent. In this election, the incumbent has basically been disqualified. He did it on his own.”
Chuck Rocha, a former Bernie Sanders aide who founded the pro-Biden Nuestro PAC, said he is planning to send out negative direct mail that takes aim at the issue at hand. He described the theme as being: “If Donald Trump can’t take care of himself, how do we expect him to take care of America?”
Still, Rocha said, he supports the Biden campaign’s decision to stay above the fray itself: “I think it’s the right idea for Biden to not go negative because that’s what you have super PACs for.”
Tara McGowan, the CEO of ACRONYM, agreed: “As a super PAC that exists for the sole purpose of filling gaps the campaign cannot fill, it is our job to not cede the online news feeds to Trump or the right-wing media at this critical time.”
RootsAction.org, a progressive 501(c)4 backing Biden, is likewise not ditching its negative digital ad campaign. On the contrary, Norman Solomon, co-founder of the organization, said it is expanding into three additional battleground states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Iowa.
“We haven’t changed anything about the content of our messaging because nothing has changed about the threat of another four years,” he said. “We’re not mitigating our criticism of what Trump has done or the danger he poses for the future.”