Progressive SuperPACs Ramp Up Their Big-Money Effort Against Donald Trump

May 12, 2016
Originally published on May 31, 2016 4:07 pm

Heavily funded progressive organizations are coordinating a sustained effort to define apparent Republican nominee Donald Trump. They've been field-testing messages for months. Now they're primed to start filling the screens of TVs, computers and smartphones with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of anti-Trump messages.

At the hub of the effort is the main Democratic superPAC, Priorities USA Action. It expects to spend $125 million in TV and digital messaging from this month to election day. That's twice as much as it spent in 2012.

"Our focus is really going to be on Donald Trump himself," said Guy Cecil, co-chairman of Priorities.

He listed three lines of attack: first, Trump's record on military and international issues; second, what Cecil called the businessman's divisiveness and "carnival barking"; and third, Trump's "record of building his own fortune on the backs of people and ... the fraudulent claims that he has made about his business record and ... how he has treated the people around him."

That last item echoes one of Priorities' best-known ads from 2012. Aimed at Mitt Romney just as he was being nominated by his party, the ad was narrated by Mike Earnest, a former worker at a factory that closed down after the company was taken over by Romney's private investment firm.

"Mitt Romney made over a $100 million by shutting down our plant, and devastated our lives," Earnest said.

Cecil said the alliance with other progressive organizations is critical. "It's something that, for the last 11 months, I've put a priority on," he said.

That time frame means the work began well before Trump announced he was running. Priorities and other groups have been exchanging poll data and research and field-testing messages. This kind of coordination is legal because it doesn't involve the candidates or parties.

This winter, Priorities and two other groups tested a batch of 15-second pop-up ads promoting Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. In one spot, two 20-somethings, a woman and a man, worked at computers side by side.

Over a light, syncopated rhythm track, a narrator said, "When you find out that bro who has your same job gets paid more than you ... you give them Hill."

One of Priorities' partners on the ad is the superPAC arm of EMILY's List, which supports liberal female candidates. The ad's target audience is young working women, whom EMILY's List is working to turn out on election day.

"If we do our jobs right and educate them on the stakes of the election, millennial woman could make up 20 percent of the overall voters in November," said Denise Feriozzi, deputy director of EMILY's List.

Priorities also works with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, where Executive Director Deirdre Schifeling said they aim to reach 3 million to 5 million voters.

"We will spend as much money as we can raise," she said. "We feel like everything is at stake this year."

Altogether, Planned Parenthood, EMILY's List and Priorities are out to spend roughly $175 million. Still, that doesn't seem like much in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign.

"We are preparing for, you know, upwards of $1 billion of spending against Hillary Clinton in the targeted presidential states," Cecil said.

Those are just the seven or so states where the reputations of both Trump and Clinton will be trashed over the coming months.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In a presidential election, a candidate is not just running against an opponent. He or she is also running against well-funded opposition groups trying desperately to define the candidate they want to take down. And progressive groups opposing Donald Trump are primed to start filling the screens of TVs, computers and smartphones with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of anti-Trump messages. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: If you pay attention to political TV ads, there's one you might remember from 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "STAGE")

MIKE EARNEST: We all just lost their jobs. We don't have an income.

OVERBY: The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action aired a worker's bitter recollection of getting laid off when Mitt Romney's investment firm took over the company where he worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "STAGE")

EARNEST: Mitt Romney made over a $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives.

OVERBY: The ad helped to define Romney before the general election campaign really got going. Priorities USA Action isn't going to do a Trump version of this ad, but co-chair Guy Cecil said they do want to shape how voters think about the billionaire.

GUY CECIL: Our focus is really going to be on Donald Trump himself.

OVERBY: One line of attack...

CECIL: Is talking about his record of building his own fortune on the backs of people and essentially on the fraudulent claims that he has made about his business record and about how he has treated the people around him.

OVERBY: Also on the target list, Trump's record on military and international issues and what Cecil called his divisiveness and carnival barking. Voters will get the messages on TV and online, essentially from this month to Election Day. Cecil said it will cost $125 million dollars, about twice what Priorities spent in 2012. Just as significantly, Priorities has been coordinating with other super PACs.

CECIL: It's really critical that we work really closely with other progressive organizations. And it's something that, for the last 11 months, I've put a priority on.

OVERBY: Eleven months - back to before Trump was even a candidate. Priorities and other groups are exchanging poll data and research and field-testing messages. This kind of coordination is legal because it doesn't involve the candidates or parties. So here's a boppy little 15-second ad that was tested this winter. Two 20-somethings, a woman and a man, at side-by-side computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "GIVE ‘EM HILL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: When you find out that bro who has your same job gets paid more than you...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You give them Hill.

OVERBY: One partner on the ad was the super PAC arm of EMILY's List, which supports liberal female candidates. EMILY's List is working to turn out young women who otherwise might not vote. Denise Feriozzi is the group's deputy director.

DENISE FERIOZZI: If we do our jobs right and educate them on the stakes of the election, millennial woman could make up 20 percent of the overall voters in November.

OVERBY: Priorities USA also works with Planned Parenthood's nonprofit Action Fund. The fund's director Deirdre Schifeling said they aim to reach 3 million to 5 million voters.

DEIRDRE SCHIFELING: We will spend as much money as we can raise. We feel like everything is at stake this year.

OVERBY: Altogether, Planned Parenthood, EMILY's List and Priorities are out to spend maybe $175 million, which isn't so much in a presidential campaign. Again, Guy Cecil.

CECIL: We are preparing for, you know, upwards of $1 billion of spending against Hillary Clinton in the targeted presidential states.

OVERBY: States where the reputations of both Trump and Clinton will be trashed over the coming months. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.