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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Attack Ads Targeting Trump Can be Effective

Most observers of political attack ads will tell you that it’s easy to overdo it. Some recent examples could include Alan Grayson’s campaign ad referring to his opponent for a Senate seat as “Taliban Dan” or Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway’s senate campaign “Aqua Buddha” ad knocking Republican candidate Rand Paul. Both of these ads backfired and actualy helped the targeted Republican.
In 2016 Democratic ad makers have a unique problem with respect to the 2016 presidential campaign, an overflowing embarrassment of riches, owing to Trump’s never-ending stream of gaffes, bullying comments and tasteles insults. There is so much material that the challenge for attack ads is what to leave out.
At The New Republic Laura Reston’s “Can Democratic Attack Ads Tear Down Donald Trump?: Republican groups’ attacks haven’t done the trick. But one big-money Democratic super PAC believes it has the formula” previews the approach of one anti-Trump group:

Republican groups in the #NeverTrump camp have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the real estate mogul in the last two months–mafia connections, failed business ventures, flagrant misogyny, racism, you name it. But Trump has continued to rack up delegates and now looks likely to secure the GOP nomination before the convention in July. This has generated some alarm in Democratic quarters: What if Donald Trump is this resilient in the general election?
You’ll find no such pessimism around the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Priorities USA Action. The wealthiest Democratic super PAC bent on taking down Trump in the general election is the same one that successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate titan in 2012…Since last summer, Priorities USA’s small team has been planning a frontal assault on the next Republican nominee. The strategists at Priorities are now sketching out a plan to boost the Democrats’ probable nominee, Hillary Clinton, assembling dossiers on both Trump and Ted Cruz, and getting a head start on reserving prime television time in crucial battleground states. The super PAC announced Tuesday that it had begun preparing a $70 million advertising blitz slated to begin after the July conventions in battleground states like Florida and Ohio.
..The group has been scripting and testing ads since last year. But what do they think is going to work against Trump when every Republican attack has failed? “While we don’t forecast our strategy specifically,” says Priorities spokesman Justin Barasky, “it’s likely that we will explore Donald Trump’s temperament, character, and selfish legacy of enriching himself at the expense of others.”

“We’ll have a focused strategy,” says Guy Cecil, chief strategist at Priorities, “not just waiting until three weeks before the election and simply throwing everything we have at Trump, which is what the Republicans did.” In adition to the cornucopia of videos casting Trump in an extremely unfavorable light, Reston adds,

Whether or not Priorities comes up with the magic bullet against Trump, it will have advantages the Republican groups never had: the time and resources to adjust its strategies, toss out what doesn’t stick, and try new tacks. That was what the Republican establishment lacked in this primary cycle: By the time groups like Our Principles realized their attacks weren’t hitting home with Republican primary voters, Trump had already racked up a nearly insurmountable delegate lead…Trump could, of course, still prove to be uniquely, almost magically, immune to attacks in the general election. But he’ll have to fend off the kind of sustained barrage that he hasn’t faced in the Republican primaries–and one that will be aimed, this time, at voters who are already skeptical of him.

There may be a “too much of a good thing” dynamic at play here. Making fun of Trump is awfully easy, and you have to wonder if Trump-bashing could get as old as Trump himself by the time November rolls around.
Then there is the concern that Trump will look so bad by election time, that many will feel his defeat is in the bag and not bother to vote. Dems have to be more positive than negative going into the final weeks of the election; they have to give voters something to vote for, not just against, and that should be well-reflected in the pro-Democratic ad campaign. Attack ads work better, when the candidate of the attacking campaign is presented in a positive light.
As the Democratic front-runner, and despite her impressive delegate tally thus far, Hillary Clinton still has high negatives that Democratic ads must help reverse. If Sanders is nominated there will be a relentless tsunami of red-baiting ads. Countering GOP attack ads will be a challenge for Democratic ad-makers, regardless of all of the damaging video clips showing Trump as a dangerous, mean-spirited blowhard.

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