Iowa Republicans have seen more advertising against former President Donald Trump this year than GOP voters anywhere else in the country.
The Win It Back PAC, a super-PAC with “close ties” to the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, spent more than $4 million over the summer to run six different television commercials in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City markets. The Republican Accountability PAC kicked in $1.5 million on its own series of tv ads in Iowa. AFP Action, an arm of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity network, has sent numerous mailings with anti-Trump messages to Iowa households and paid for dozens of Facebook ads seeking to convince Iowans the former president is unelectable. New groups have popped up to fund direct mail in Iowa attacking Trump on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to COVID-19 policies to crime.
Nevertheless, Trump is as well positioned for the 2024 caucuses as ever, according to the latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register, NBC News, and Mediacom. Among those likely to attend the GOP caucuses in January, 43 percent support Trump, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley are tied for second place at 16 percent. No other candidate was in double digits.
Selzer’s findings are consistent with other recent polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, showing Trump ahead of DeSantis by at least 20 points and in most cases by more than 30 points.
One could argue the barrage of anti-Trump messages dented the front-runner’s appeal. His numbers in Iowa are lower than his support nationally, where he’s been hovering at or above 55 percent lately in presidential GOP primary polls.
But any early success from the television, direct mail, and digital ad blitz seems to have dissipated. Selzer’s polling suggests Trump’s level of support held steady among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers: 42 percent in August, 43 percent in October. His lead over the second-place candidate grew from 23 points in August to 27 points this month. Trump’s supporters are also more enthusiastic and “locked in” than those leaning toward other presidential candidates.
The latest Iowa Poll validates the conclusions of research Win It Back PAC conducted this summer: most ads seeking to drive Republicans away from Trump either have no effect or increase his support among the target audience.
ANTI-TRUMP MESSAGES FACE RESISTANT AUDIENCE
Win It Back PAC leader David McIntosh shared hard truths in a September memo to donors, first reported by Jonathan Swan for the New York Times. “Every traditional post-production ad attacking President Trump either backfired or produced no impact on his ballot support and favorability,” even when the ads showed him “saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth.”
The PAC’s work with focus groups and “online randomized controlled experiments” indicated a few lines of attack were more promising, though:
Broadly acceptable messages against President Trump with Republican primary voters that do not produce a meaningful backlash include sharing concerns about his ability to beat President Biden, expressions of Trump fatigue due to the distractions he creates, as well as his pattern of attacking conservative leaders for self-interested reasons.
Most of the ads opposing Trump incorporate one or more of those ideas. Looking at them in turn:
TRUMP CAN’T WIN THE GENERAL ELECTION
The vast majority of anti-Trump messages are variations on a single claim: Trump cannot beat Joe Biden and would drag down Republicans running for other offices next November. Almost every AFP Action mailing and Facebook ad hammered this point home. “You have the power to stop Biden by letting go of Trump”; “With Trump Republicans lose the House and Senate”; “Trump supercharges Democrat turnout and will give Biden four more years.” And many, many more.
Incidentally, it’s far from a sure thing Biden would defeat Trump in a rematch. I could make the case that Biden is favored to win key swing states, but recent national surveys put the current and former president in a dead heat. No one knows whether the political environment a year from now will favor Democrats or Republicans.
Jim Lyons of West Des Moines starred in a 60-second spot Win It Back PAC aired in July. The speaker began by saying Trump “was the right man in 2016, and he showed it with his policies.” (McIntosh’s memo noted, “It is essential to disarm the viewer at the opening of the ad by establishing that the person being interviewed on camera is a Republican who previously supported President Trump.”)
But “Trump fatigue” set in, Lyons went on. “He just wore people down.” Then Trump came out and “endorsed a number of candidates who miserably lost” in 2022. To reinforce the point and reach viewers with the volume turned down, words appear on screen: “TRUMP LOST THE MIDTERMS.”
“Donald Trump is and can be very polarizing. He just can rub people the wrong way,” Lyons continued. “He talks way too much about 2020. He just doesn’t know when to quit. Sometimes he goes overboard, and it’s not good.”
Some ads in this vein make a softer pitch. Instead of saying Trump can’t win, they say it’s too big a gamble to nominate him. An AFP Action mailing from July urged, “Ask yourself: is it worth the risk?” More recent mail pieces have continued the drumbeat: “Are you willing to risk it?” Or, “Are you willing to risk it all on Trump?”
“Risky” was the title of a Win It Back ad featuring Ross Paustian, which was on the air in August. The spot identifies Paustian as a “crop & livestock farmer” and shows him on his farm, not mentioning that he served in the Iowa House for more than a decade and is now a Scott County supervisor who has endorsed DeSantis for president.
Donald Trump was was one of the best presidents in my lifetime. We’re not seeing that kind of leadership from Biden now. It’s really sad.
(Laughing) I think there’s a lot of reasons why Trump lost. About every other day you’d go, “Why did he say that?” I mean, it still continues today. There’s definitely Trump fatigue.
It’s, it’s too bad. I think he’d do a good job, but I don’t know if we can get him elected. I think it’s too risky for the country. Try someone else.
TOO MUCH BAGGAGE/TOO MANY DISTRACTIONS
“Unprecedented” must be one of the most overused words in the Trump era, but what else can you say about this candidate’s upward trend in polls of Republicans, even after being indicted for 91 state or federal crimes in four jurisdictions?
The anti-Trump ads have been careful not to delve into the substance of the criminal charges, which the former president has portrayed as politically motivated. Instead, they have alluded in vague terms to Trump’s “distractions” or “baggage.”
The unidentified star of the Win It Back ad “Lottery” said Trump flipped him from independent to Republican, “and it was a great four years.” But “for 2024, Trump is not the most electable candidate.”
When the Democrat Party sees Trump, it’s one of those things where it’s like, every time you turn on the news you’re winning the lottery. You’re like, “Look what he’s doing this time.”
You’re supposed to block when the other team kicks. You’re not supposed to, you know, score against your own team.
He probably doesn’t wake up without 50 emails from his attorneys about current or possible indictments. That’s every day of his life now. And that kind of hurts me to say because I had Trump flags up in my house. I had one in my front yard. Like, I was that guy.
Not this time. I felt like I met my hero, and he let me down.
Fran’s not supporting Trump this cycle because he “has way too much political baggage. There’s so many indictments against him. The next Republican candidate has to be somebody that can convince swing voters, independents to vote for them because Donald Trump can’t.”
The debut television ad from Win It Back PAC in July featured “John,” who said what’s happening in the country now is “a hot mess.” John loved Trump and considered him “a breath of fresh air.” But the nonstop “drama” affected his own family relationships. “He’s got so many distractions. The constant fighting, something every day. And I’m not sure he can focus on moving the country forward.”
John continued, “The election is really important because we’re going in the wrong direction. I mean, we definitely need somebody who can freaking win. I think you’d probably lose that bet if you voted for Trump.”
TRUMP IS IN IT FOR HIMSELF
The unidentified woman featured in another Win It Back PAC ad from July said she really liked how Trump was “about the country” when he was president. She went on:
I didn’t and I still don’t like when Trump goes about attacking people within our own party. [words on screen: “Trump blasts Iowa’s GOP governor,” Axios, 7/10/23]
We are a family. We are a Republican Party. But he sees it as his party. Not really a family. Not really a team.
2024 is just about him saying, ‘I’m back.’ It’s going to make it tough for us to win. My hope is that we will have a candidate that can beat Biden.
IOWA REPUBLICANS NOT CONVINCED
The anti-Trump tv commercials struck me as well-produced and potentially more effective than AFP’s repetitive mass mailings and digital ads. McIntosh’s memo from September said Win It Back PAC’s surveys found “a significant drop in the intensity of [Trump’s] support,” with fewer voters in targeted markets saying they had a very favorable view of Trump, fewer saying they would definitely consider voting for him again, and fewer saying he was “the best possible candidate Republicans can nominate in 2024.”
But the polling revealed “diminishing returns with the messaging track we deployed through this ad campaign.” There was more movement following the first three tv ads than after the second three ads aired.
Selzer’s August poll for the Register, NBC News, and Mediacom was the firm’s first ballot test of GOP candidates this cycle, so could not pick up any shift that may have occurred earlier in the summer. But the Iowa Poll data bolsters the “diminishing returns” hypothesis. Trump remains “on solid ground,” in Ann Selzer’s words, with 43 percent support and a 27-point lead over DeSantis and Haley. He appears to be bringing in new voters, with 49 percent support among respondents who would be first-time caucus-goers in January. Among those backing Trump, 47 percent are “extremely enthusiastic” about their choice, and 63 percent say their minds are made up.
Trump does less well among independents who plan to participate in the Iowa GOP caucuses, according to Selzer’s polling. But even among those voters, he leads and has improved his standing. The August survey showed 21 percent of independent caucus-goers backed Trump and 19 percent were for DeSantis. The new numbers for that group are 33 percent for Trump, 22 percent for Haley, and 12 percent for DeSantis.
The electability argument against the former president has fallen flat with those likely to attend the caucuses. In the latest Iowa Poll, 65 percent of respondents agreed Trump “can win an election against Joe Biden, regardless of his legal challenges.” Only 32 percent said his legal challenges “will make it nearly impossible for him to win an election against Joe Biden.”
It’s hardly surprising most Iowa Republicans think Trump would beat Biden. He carried this state by an 8-point margin in 2020. Furthermore, Selzer’s August poll found 51 percent of those likely to attend next year’s GOP caucuses wrongly believe Trump won in 2020. The same poll found 65 percent of likely caucus-goers said Trump has not committed any serious crimes, while only 26 percent of respondents thought he has.
A different question on the new survey suggested some discomfort with how Trump conducts himself. Asked to choose one of three statements about Trump’s role in the Republican Party, 28 percent of respondents said he “was a good president, but it’s time to consider other leaders,” and 32 percent said the GOP “needs a new leader with better personal behavior and a different approach.” But a plurality of 39 percent said Trump should continue to lead the party.
It’s a grim landscape for Republicans hoping for a different nominee in 2024.
ANTI-TRUMP ADS ABOUT ISSUES FAIL
Trump’s record as president and eyebrow-raising statements on some topics would seem to open up promising lines of attack. Iowa GOP caucus-goers view themselves as focused on the issues: 63 percent of respondents in the new Selzer poll said their presidential preference was “more about the issues,” while just 29 percent said it was “more about personality and leadership style.”
However, after testing more than 40 television ads in focus groups and online experiments, Win It Back PAC learned, “All attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective, regardless of the setting […]. Even when you show video to Republican primary voters with complete context of President Trump saying something otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it.”
Ads that failed to damage Trump’s favorability and ballot support included “attacks on his handling of the pandemic, promotion of vaccines, praise of Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, insane government spending, failure to build the wall, recent attacks on pro-life legislation, refusal to fight woke issues, openness to gun control, and many others.”
For example, a 60-second spot criticizing Trump for endorsing COVID lockdowns, defending Fauci, and praising “Operation Warp Speed” did well in focus groups but actually improved Trump’s favorability and ballot support in a randomized online setting. A 30-second spot depicting Trump as the “King of Debt” didn’t sway focus group participants, who said they were “concerned with the mounting national debt” but doubted anyone would be able to fix the problem.
On the basis of that research, Win It Back did not deploy any issue-based ads. But other groups have tried this angle, with little apparent success. Bleeding Heartland previously covered the two mailings a newly-incorporated group sent to Iowa Republican households in July, hoping to convince voters the former president “stood up for marriage equality” and LGBTQ rights, and was even a “Trailblazer for Trans.”
Over the past month, a different organization called Finish the Fight, Inc has highlighted Trump’s pandemic record and hammered him for signing the criminal justice reform bill known as the First Step Act. I have been unable to find information about the organizers or funders of Finish the Fight. This spending will probably never show up on disclosures of independent expenditures related to the presidential campaign, because the mailings are styled as issue advocacy rather than electioneering. That is, they don’t urge recipients to oppose Trump for president. They ask them to call Congress about the topic at hand.
One of my contacts received this mailing in early October. “Who was calling the shots?” it asked, with a large photo of Fauci holding a syringe and a smaller image of Trump.
The reverse side asked “How could a Republican president let this happen?” Next to another picture of Fauci, bullet points note how many public school students were affected by school closures in 2020, how many employees lost their jobs, and how the pandemic “devastated our economy.”
At least three mailings from Finish the Fight have portrayed Trump as soft on crime because he signed the First Step Act in 2018. That legislation had bipartisan support; Iowa’s own Senator Chuck Grassley was among its key backers and has praised the law for giving “prisoners a better opportunity to leave their criminal past behind and become productive members of society.”
Finish the Fight pulled out the old “Willie Horton” playbook for this mailing, which many Iowans received in late September. “A Republican president handed get out of jail free cards to violent criminals,” one side reads. “Murderers, sex offenders, and drug dealers are back on our streets because of his First Step Act.”
The other side showed two people who allegedly committed more crimes after being released under the federal law. “A Republican president gave his seal of approval to allow violent criminals out of jail to commit crimes again,” the mailer reads next to a photo of Trump.
The same alleged gang leader was also featured in this mailing from the second week of October.
Just last week, many Iowa households received a third installment in the series. This mailing didn’t mention Trump by name or include his likeness. A frightened woman is depicted as thinking, “I didn’t always have to look over my shoulder…but thanks to a Republican president’s failed leadership, now I do!”
Just as it seemed farfetched that Iowa Republicans would believe Trump was a champion for LGBTQ rights, this mail campaign is unlikely to turn many caucus-goers against Trump. For decades, conservative media and Republican politicians have primed GOP voters to blame Democrats for violent crime.
The Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel wrote in her analysis of the new Selzer poll, “Trump leads by a commanding margin, but Iowa caucusgoers have not shut the door on alternatives,” and “are known for considering many candidates before slowly zeroing in on one person by Caucus Day.”
While I understand a journalist’s reluctance to declare any future event a foregone conclusion, it is hard to imagine how any other candidate could overtake Trump, even if more contenders follow Mike Pence’s lead and drop out before January. The majority of Republican voters discount negative information about Trump. The front runner is avoiding televised debates (a venue where a major gaffe can change the trajectory of a campaign). He’s drawing large crowds to Iowa rallies where staff recruit volunteers. While Haley and DeSantis are targeting each other, Make America Great Again super-PAC is paying for advertising that builds up Trump and denigrates DeSantis.
When it comes to Republican audiences, Trump is the ultimate Teflon president.
UPDATE: Semafor’s Shelby Talcott spent two days shadowing canvassers for AFP Action in Des Moines and Ames. The group’s door knocking efforts focus on people who “want to move on from Trump, or those they describe as ‘soft’ supporters, who like Trump but remain open to hearing out other candidates.” From Talcott’s November 1 report:
There are attack lines that work against the former president, according to my conversations with the group: For “soft” Trump voters, AFPA finds that the electability argument is key. For people already leaning against Trump, messages focused on his personality seem to be motivating. […]
AFPA’s door knockers are equipped with an app that allows them to target specific houses and voters and track their progress. They also come prepared with a script, asking questions about what voters’ top concerns are; how likely a voter would be to vote for Trump or one of his opponents if the primary were held today; whether the person plans to caucus in January; and an explanation of why they, too, are looking for the alternative to Trump. Over time, AFPA has people return to homes where voters expressed a willingness to pick someone besides Trump.
Top photo: front side of mailing AFP Action sent to Iowa households in July 2023.