Dozens of groups. A well-coordinated plan of attack. And spending that could approach a half-billion dollars by November.
Welcome to the super PAC-led effort to defeat President Donald Trump.
A collection of outside groups — ranging from shoestring outfits with a handful of employees to deep-pocketed operations run by leading Democratic strategists — have joined forces to a degree that operatives involved say is unprecedented to play an often-overlooked but major role in boosting Joe Biden in key battleground states.
The size and scope of the effort, top officials with the groups argue, has already made meaningful differences at the margins of the 2020 presidential race — and is the product of years of intensive research into how to persuade and mobilize voters.
“We spent over 3 ½ years preparing for this moment,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, the flagship super PAC working against Trump that estimates it will spend more than $200 million this election cycle.
In past elections, super PACs aligned with both parties have also collectively spent hundreds of millions of dollars. But Democratic super PAC officials say what’s different this year is an uncommon level of communication and cooperation and across dozens of organizations, a collaboration they hope has helped make the total effort greater than the sum of its individual parts. Even if the super PACs can’t legally coordinate with the Biden campaign, they’ve taken it upon themselves to ensure their efforts compliment — and don’t contradict — one another.
That level of coordination will be tested as the race enters a new phase this month, beginning with both parties’ national conventions and the subsequent 10-week spring to Election Day. Nearly every super PAC official interviewed expressed a conviction that a race in which Biden holds a double-digit national lead in some polls will inevitably tighten.
“It seems many people have learned lessons from 2016: We need to have a blowout,” said Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC that expects to raise and spend about $90 million. “If you want to win this thing and not have to litigate and fight it out and tie up the country for weeks, you have to beat him like a drum.”
Combating the ‘Death Star’
The pro-Biden super PACs were always going to have a more important role to play supporting the presumptive Democratic nominee than the outside groups backing Trump, who by virtue of his incumbency was able to centralize his 2020 preparations within his own campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Trump’s ability to prepare for the general election — to build what former campaign manager Brad Parscale called a “Death Star” — was a top concern of Cecil and other Democrats, who worried that the president’s operation would be able to quickly define whichever candidate emerged from the primary.
It’s why Priorities spent heavily on TV and digital ads in important swing states in late spring through early summer, focusing on Trump’s coronavirus response.
From mid-April through June, Priorities spent nearly $20 million on ads in the five battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — $10 million less than what the Trump campaign spent there but nearly double the amount of the Biden campaign.
Priorities’ initial flight tested the effectiveness of its messages, withholding one digital ad critical of Trump’s handling of the pandemic from 10 percent of zip codes. The group’s research showed a net difference of two and a half percentage points in Trump’s approval between the zip codes where the ad was running and the zip codes where it wasn’t, a small but potentially critical margin.
“For us, the spring and summer were about, how do we bring to bear all of the research and the tests we learned from in the last three and a half years, but now putting it into effect in a much different political environment than we expected,” Cecil said.
As the summer wore on, other groups joined Priorities’ efforts in earnest. Over a two-week stretch in mid-July, Priorities, American Bridge, and another pro-Biden group, Unite the Country, each spent heavily on TV ads in battleground states, which, along with the Biden campaign’s own spending, swamped the Trump team’s efforts.
But the aggregate effort, which totaled more than $3 million, wasn’t just about sheer force — it also demonstrated how the outside groups’ efforts complimented one another.
Unite the Country’s ads promoted Biden’s experience with past economic collapses. American Bridge’s featured frustrated Republicans renouncing their past support of Trump. And Priorities USA’s used the president’s own words against him to criticize his coronavirus response. Rather than just hammer the same message, the trio of messages reached out to different parts of the electorate in different ways.
“My view of the world is the easiest way to get a win is to expand the tent,” said Steve Schale, the Florida-based Democratic operative who serves as CEO of Unite the Country. “And on the super PAC side, you’re seeing that benefit Joe Biden. We all understand we’re playing a role.”
A ‘drama-free’ campaign
Across the dozens of outside groups working to defeat Trump, each has a distinct mission and set of tactics.
PACRONYM, a super PAC backed by former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, and its affiliated nonprofit will spend at least $55 million on its digital program this year, a campaign now focused on reaching out to Democrats who are unenthusiastic about the party’s presidential ticket. The Tom Steyer-founded NextGen America is focused on direct outreach to young voters with methods that include peer-to-peer text messages.
American Bridge, which began the cycle focused on rural voters, has since shifted to disaffected former Trump supporters who are willing to publicly speak out against the president, inviting them to record testimony through their home computer. Unite the Country is focused on praising Biden’s record. And Priorities USA is running the closest operation to a traditional full-fledged super PAC, trying to persuade swing voters and mobilize the Democratic base while also serving as a clearinghouse of research for other groups.
Leading officials with these groups say they are in continual conversation with one another about their plans and strategic goals, holding weekly, if not daily, Zoom meetings. They swap data, share content and even promote each other’s initiatives.
“It’s Democrats in array, to sort of counter the Twitter narrative,” said Ben Wessel, the executive of NextGen America. “We’ve been building and forging relationships like this when Team Biden and Team Bernie and Team Buttigieg were all sniping at each other in a union hall in Clark County, Nevada. And that’s invaluable.”
Wessel, who has been with NextGen since 2014, said this election cycle has easily had the most cooperation among Democratic-aligned outside groups.
“This is by far the most drama-free year,” he said. “So much is at stake.”
Schale joked that insistence on a cooperative spirit was an explicit part of the beginning of one meeting he participated in, which included officials from 14 other outside groups.
“We basically started out the conversation by each saying something nice about someone else’s group on the call,” he said.
Still, the effort has experienced some friction. When this spring the Biden campaign indicated Priorities would be its primary super PAC, and not Unite the Country, Schale said it created some tension.
But he added that any such resentments have long since abated, and that his group, which had worked on Biden’s behalf in the primary, benefited greatly from research Priorities had conducted over the last three years.
“Guy [Cecil] and I have talked, been on calls with other groups,” Schale said. “We benefit from that knowledge.”
Joining forces with ‘Never Trumpers’
In the spirit of cooperation, these Democratic groups have even coordinated directly with two groups run by former Republicans who oppose Trump, the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump. American Bridge’s Beychok, for instance, said that because both his group and RVAT want to persuade GOP voters to back Biden, they’ve swapped information about potential voters to feature in ads and even video clips of them.
“These are people I talk with weekly,” Beychok said, “Putting our cards together, sharing our learning, sharing testing.”
Schale and Rick Wilson, a former Florida GOP strategist and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, have also swapped strategic notes about their shared home state.
“Coordination and cooperation between those groups have always been perfectly appropriate and legal,” Wilson said. “And it’s happened before, but never before at this scale.
The amount of money these groups will spend against Trump in total isn’t yet clear. But according to multiple officials tracking Republican and Democratic outside groups, there is a widely held expectation that the spending will exceed $400 million and likely approach a half-billion dollars, a gargantuan sum even for a presidential race.
Leaders of the super PAC effort expressed optimism that in conjunction with a Biden campaign that had significantly closed the cash gap with Trump entering August, Trump’s financial edge has been significantly diminished or eliminated altogether in the final stretch of the race.
“It’s a tie ballgame now head-to-head between the two sides,” Wilson said.
Despite Biden’s edge in the polls, Democratic super PAC officials say they expect Trump’s support to grow as November nears.
“I still believe, fundamentally, that this could be a very close election,” Cecil said.
Troubling Cecil the most are worries that Democratic voters will have reduced access to ballots, whether due to mail processing issues at the Postal Service or other means. It’s why he says Priorities will invest more in informing targeted voters about mail balloting.
The group has already been working since 2018 to expand voting rights across the country, filing lawsuits and supporting other legal challenges in states like Iowa, Arizona, and Florida to expand voter education programs and overturn voter ID requirements.
Cecil said as much as the party fixates on moderate voters who could swing toward either candidate, his group is focused just as much on mobilizing and persuading the party’s base.
“In our polling all of the growth in our number has come not solely from persuadable voters but also from the consolidation of the Democratic base,” Cecil said. “And now the question becomes how big is that base going to become? And so I think that underscores the importance of expanding and doubling down on talking to young voters and young voters of color.”
Other groups are eyeing new initiatives: Tim Miller, the political director for RVAT, said his group is now eyeing Florida, cognizant that Biden’s unexpectedly strong support among seniors and the state’s prize of 29 Electoral Votes make it an enticing prospect, though he emphasized no decision to engage there has been made. The group’s expected budget for this year recently increased from $10 million to $15 million.
If the group does begin running ads in the state, however, it will be done in cooperation and collaboration with Democratic super PACs.
“You’d think that you’d see more knifing behind the scenes, and maybe part of that is Biden’s up and that would change if the polls changed,” Miller said. “But I don’t think so.”
Want more McClatchy political coverage? Sign up here to get a daily rundown of 2020 election news from our newsrooms and other local journalists around the country.
And for even more 2020 politics, download McClatchy's Beyond the Bubble podcast here:
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts