PHILADELPHIA — President Donald Trump’s campaign is pouring millions of dollars into a plan to weaken Joe Biden among swing state voters of color — and it’s creating a sense of déjà vu among Democratic operatives.
Trump’s team is airing TV advertisements aimed at Black and Latino voters that attack the presumptive Democratic nominee over his past support of the 1994 crime bill, which led to increased incarceration, particularly among people of color, as well as his mental fitness in Spanish-language spots. It’s a sign that Trump aides, while struggling to find a consistent and effective line of attack against Biden, have settled on at least one strategy: dilute Biden’s strength among minority voters.
“It’s very clear the Trump campaign is trying to use much of the same playbook from 2016,” said Karen Finney, Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson during that campaign. “This should be a blaring call to all Democrats running for office this year, specifically Biden, that you cannot take anything for granted with Black voters, period. Because we made that mistake in 2016, and ended up with, just as an example, Hillary underperforming in Milwaukee, which has a high African American population.”
In the past three weeks alone, the Trump team has spent more than $2 million on the advertisements in six swing states and nationally, according to Advertising Analytics. The blueprint is similar to the one they successfully executed against Clinton in 2016, when the campaign helped drive down turnout among African American voters in key battleground states by focusing on her past comments about “superpredators” and advocacy for the crime bill. In 2016, Black voter turnout dropped in a presidential race for the first time in two decades, plummeting from nearly 67 percent to just under 60 percent, per Pew.
Biden campaign officials contend that there are key differences between now and 2016: Trump was widely expected to lose, they point out, making it easier at the time to persuade people to stay at home. Now, voters have seen 3½ years of his job performance, including, they say, his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black and Latino Americans as well as his fanning the flames of racism amid nationwide protests against police brutality.
At the same time, “We’re taking nothing for granted — the Vice President has a long history with the African-American community and we are reinforcing that,” wrote Patrick Bonsignore, Biden’s director of paid media, in a June memo obtained by POLITICO.
The Trump team is not expecting to win the majority Black and Latino voters. Instead, they are looking to cut into Biden’s margins so he doesn’t carry voters of color by as much as he is now. In addition to airing attack ads against Biden, Trump’s campaign has also previously put out positive spots aimed at Black voters about the president signing a criminal justice reform bill.
Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement about the campaign’s ads, “All Americans should be concerned that Joe Biden isn’t cognitively up to the job of being President of the United States. Additionally, his record of mass incarceration of people of color and his history of embracing notorious, segregationist senators and condescension toward Black voters is disgraceful.”
Over the past few months, Trump has plummeted in the polls. Biden currently leads Trump by nearly 9 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average. But Democratic strategists said Trump’s strategy could still damage Biden in critical states and especially make a difference if the race narrows.
Trump’s spot “We Remember,” which quotes Biden in the 1990s as saying “every major crime bill that has come out of this Congress has had the name ‘Joe Biden,’” has aired in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. “Biden Esta Deteriorado,” a Spanish-language ad painting Biden as mentally diminished, has gone up in Florida, Arizona and New Mexico.
“It’s part of a disinformation campaign that I expect that they will wage in communities of color across this country to suppress the vote for Joe Biden,” said Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 senior adviser, who also served as his 2016 campaign manager. “This went on in 2016, too. There were groups online that were not real groups that were messaging to communities of color against Hillary Clinton and the sole goal was to suppress the vote.”
One particular source of concern for Democrats is that, despite Trump’s troubles, Biden is still polling somewhat behind Clinton among Latinos. A June NPR-Marist survey found that 59 percent of Latino voters said they are backing Biden, compared with the 66 to 79 percent who cast a ballot for Clinton in 2016. An Economist/YouGov poll this month showed his Latino support at 62 percent.
A pair of super PACs run by Weaver and Chuck Rocha, another top 2020 aide to Sanders, recently released the first spot in a seven-figure ad buy aimed at persuading Latino voters to support Biden. They said they are honing in on the voting bloc for a reason.
“It’s the greatest need for Joe Biden to be president. Joe Biden is doing better with working-class white people. Joe Biden is doing somewhat better with young people. But he is underperforming with Latinos,” Rocha said. “Seeing the Trump ads, to an old operative like me, tells me that they have the same numbers that we have.”
Democrats believe Biden is lagging behind Clinton among Latino voters partly as a result of Sanders being the favorite of many in the primary, as well as what progressives viewed as draconian deportation policies by the Obama administration.
Trump’s immigration record has included a policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and in the late 1980s he placed an ad calling for the death penalty to be reinstated after a group of Black and Latino teenagers were wrongly charged, and later convicted, for raping a jogger in New York. In recent weeks, Trump has called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate” and retweeted a video in which an apparent Trump fan says “white power.”
But Trump’s history and comments did not prevent him from successfully weakening Clinton among voters of color in battleground states in 2016. Unlike that campaign, though, Trump has struggled so far this year to turn the race into a choice election instead of a referendum on him.
At times, his commercials have also been seemingly contradictory. Along with his spot bashing Biden for being too tough on crime in the 1990s, Trump is also airing a misleading ad claiming that police will be defunded under a Biden administration. Biden came out against the proposal to defund police last month, almost immediately after it gained prominence.
The Trump campaign has spent nearly $14 million on the advertisement so far, which is playing in English and Spanish, including in all of the same areas where another spot is bashing Biden over the crime bill.
Last month, the Biden campaign released two digital spots directed at Black voters, which the aforementioned internal memo said were intended to show “how civil rights and equality has been a driving force” in Biden’s career. The same document said an ad campaign geared at Latino voters was focused on Trump’s handling of coronavirus and the unemployment crisis. Additionally, it said the Biden team is planning to place ads in more than 30 African American newspapers in swing states — a tack Trump took last year.
Ali Pardo, Trump’s deputy communications director, tweeted that Biden’s commercials were a sign of weakness: “In an unprecedented general election move for a Dem, Biden launched 2 TV ads this week to try to shore up support w/ black voters.”
Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid response director, said in response: “Joe Biden is running to overcome systemic racism and heal the poisonous divisions that Donald Trump — who calls white supremacists ‘very fine people’ and tear-gassed peaceful Americans standing up for racial justice — thrives on worsening. If all Donald Trump can see when someone reaches out to communities of color is fear, then he’s given us another revealing window into what a cowardly, sad, and weak shell of a human being he is.”