It may be hard to remember, but when Donald Trump first rode the escalator down to the political stage in 2015, most in the Republican establishment scoffed at the idea that he would ever lead their party. But by the time the former reality star clinched the party’s presidential nomination after an arduous primary in which he bested over twenty Republican candidates, the GOP decided that it would be better to support Trump’s candidacy than to allow Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, anywhere near the White House.
But as the 2020 election nears, some in the Republican Party have decided that removing Trump from office is more important than winning another election. A new group called Republican Voters Against Trump is now gearing up for a $10 million TV and internet ad campaign to convince white, college-educated conservatives that it is in the country’s best interest to make Joe Biden president, and prevent Trump from permanently damaging the Republican Party.
“What was missing in 2016 was a real concerted effort to take the voices of real people who have deep reservations about Trump, but who identify as Republicans, and allow them to be the messengers,” said Sarah Longwell, a lifelong conservative and a prominent Never Trump Republican. Longwell is one of three founders of Republican Voters Against Trump, along with conservative commentator Bill Kristol, and former Jeb Bush aide Tim Miller.
The organization has spent three years hosting focus groups and conducting research on what messaging would be most effective in persuading on-the-fence conservatives to vote against their own party. This week, it unveiled a website that features a hundred video testimonials, each featuring an everyday Republican voter explaining in personal terms why they will not vote to reelect Donald Trump.
Few of the videos flaunt an overwhelming endorsement of Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee. But most of the messages explain how Trump has hijacked the true conservative values of the Republican Party, and why electing Joe Biden—even for a single term—outweighs the danger of renewing Trump’s contract.
One participant says, “I suppose I’ll be voting for Joe Biden,” while another says Biden’s “not a perfect candidate” but “a decent man.” Yet another speaker says of the Democratic nominee, “This guy has one term written all over him. Let him win. We’ll have four years to rebuild the base, re-educate the party, bleach out the Trump cult stain and then come back,” adding, “I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump with a gun to my head and neither should you.”
Though the passion for Biden is nowhere as intense as the hatred for Trump, the lukewarm enthusiasm for Biden is part of the organization’s strategy. Longwell says that the subdued support for Biden’s candidacy makes for a more authentic pitch to persuadable Republicans than an overly-enthusiastic endorsement would. “People who have been Republicans their entire lives aren’t super excited about voting for a Democrat,” she said. “The way they talk about it is more in sorrow than enthusiasm.”
Still, Republicans Voting Against Trump thinks that with the proper marketing, it can convince a certain sector of the party to consider casting a ballot for Biden, a goal that is far more plausible than convincing the same group to ever vote for Hillary Clinton. “You can’t overstate what the Clintons represent for Republicans,” Longwell said. “Donald Trump’s corruption was offset by what they saw as her corruption.” She believes that it will be easier to sell Biden as a level-headed man of integrity.
The ad blitz will hit the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona through the summer, and will target college-educated, white voters who live in the suburbs. Longwell says she feels optimistic that there are indeed persuadable Republicans out there.
“I was surprised by how many people had just decided because of the coronavirus response,” she said. “They for the first time started watching the press conferences.”