With damaging revelations about the president’s dealings with Ukraine emerging on a near-daily basis and polls showing increasing support for impeachment, the president is facing serious political peril. But even Democrats acknowledge concern that Trump’s unique ability to rally his supporters and marshal resources could have a profound impact on the 2020 election.
Tara McGowan, a Democratic digital strategist who worked for a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC in 2016, said that Trump’s “ability to very quickly define any event or issue on his terms and energize his base” through online advertising “provides him with a huge competitive advantage over Democrats.”
“This approach enables Trump to set the narrative on his terms and paint himself as the iconoclast that is always under attack from the ‘fake news media’ and Democratic ‘witch hunt,’ and it clearly works as they continue to perpetuate it every chance they get,” McGowan added.
The Trump team has orchestrated a massive digital campaign aimed at pushing his supporters’ emotional buttons by conveying a singular message: The president is under assault.
The campaign spent $1 million on Facebook ads in the span of 72 hours last week, asking for supporters to donate and become leaders “in defending the president against these baseless and disgusting attacks.” Trump 2020 also sent out 65 million emails and 12 million text messages asking small-dollar donors to help combat “hateful and baseless attacks.”
The approach has been heavily shaped by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. With 24-hour cable news stations airing near-constant coverage of impeachment, Parscale has privately compared the campaign to a marketing machine that is setting its own narrative.
Trump has spent years priming his supporters to see him as under attack, and aides say their fundraising is typically at its highest when he’s perceived as in danger. The campaign, for example, raised $1 million in the 24 hours following the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But the threat of impeachment, Trump allies say, has turbocharged giving.
“When you’re under attack, your supporters are more engaged and that’s the general position [of the campaign’s messaging] — that ‘We’re under siege,’ and ‘We need your help,’ and ‘This is ridiculous,’ and ‘Let’s fight back,’” said Gerrit Lansing, who serves as president of WinRed, the online donation processor used by the Trump campaign. “And that’s a powerful message.”
With the White House choosing to forgo an impeachment-focused war room, much of the messaging is being outsourced to the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. The two organizations, working closely with one another, have sent out dozens of statements, tweets, and video clips designed to cast the president as the prey of a Democratic Party out to destroy him. On Monday, the RNC unveiled a rapid response program focused on impeachment.
Trump’s political machine has enabled him to capitalize financially on impeachment in a way he struggled to when confronting past political crises. Veterans of Trump’s disorganized 2016 campaign, for example, said the firestorm caused by the release of the lewd “Access Hollywood” video did not prompt anything near the protective response from supporters that the impeachment push has generated.
For the Trump campaign, perhaps the biggest prize of its recent efforts is the 50,000 new donors. Trump aides will be able to ask them for cash repeatedly in the months to come. And now that the party has their contact information and other personal data, turning those voters out next year will be far easier.
“These are the same types of people who will vote with their wallets,” said Zac Moffatt, the digital director on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “They’re on the team. They’re unlikely [to be] coming off that now.”
Parscale has briefed the president on the impeachment-focused fundraising effort and has told him that the amount he’s receiving in donations is one of the clearest indicators of how the impeachment battle is playing out.
Flush with cash, the campaign has chosen to plow $8 million into a nationally aired televison ad tying former Vice President Joe Biden to Ukraine and accusing Democrats of plotting to “steal” the 2020 election. Trump, who has signaled to White House aides that he’s eager to go after Biden, personally signed off on the purchase after son-in-law Jared Kushner broached the idea, according to an administration official.
The RNC has separately begun its own TV ads going after House Democrats from districts Trump won in 2016 who’ve given their support to the impeachment inquiry.
Democrats have generally been more reluctant to fundraise off impeachment, though several Democratic candidates have sent out appeals tied to the investigation. Spokespersons for the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said they’d taken steps to raise money from their supporters but declined to provide specifics on how much they’d taken in.
Some Democrats express discomfort about the prospect of financially capitalizing off what they describe as a serious process.
“Democrats just aren’t as motivated and excited by the specter of removing the president as they are by soundly defeating him next year. And there’s a conscious effort to avoid overly politicizing a legal process,” said Daniel Scarvalone, a veteran Democratic digital strategist. “I wouldn’t be shocked if Democrats continued to tiptoe around the issue, because there just isn’t as much upside for it as there is for Republicans.”
But while Trump reaps the rewards of playing to his base, some senior Republicans caution that he’ll eventually need to woo swing voters to be successful in 2020.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, said Trump’s fundraising numbers were indicative of a tribal moment in politics “where if the president is attacked, his supporters will react by becoming even more revved up and come to his defense in whatever way they can.”
But Rove added that the Democratic and Republican bases were fully engaged and that both parties would need to compete for a relatively small group of swing voters who were likely to decide the outcome of the election.
“I think it is a huge mistake for people to say, ‘Oh, well we can win this by simply focusing on the base alone,’” said Rove. “I can’t think of a successful presidential re-elect that was focused on the base and the base only.”