Politics & Government

Democratic super PAC launches ‘hyper-local’ ads targeting Trump supporters in rural America

A Washington-based Democratic super PAC has quietly begun running ads as part of a multi-million dollar campaign targeting an unexpected group of Donald Trump’s base: rural voters.

The ads — a series of promoted posts on Facebook — marked the first visible effort of American Bridge’s $50 million initiative to persuade swing state voters in rural areas to vote for the party’s presidential nominee in 2020.

Already, officials with the group said they have raised $21 million for the effort while deploying staffers to three of presidential race’s most critical battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. They plan to send staffers to another swing state, Florida, and said they have done extensive research on the most effective arguments to persuade rural voters.

It’s all part of a necessary effort, American Bridge officials told McClatchy, to reduce Trump’s advantage in this part of the country, where he won overwhelmingly during the 2016 election.

“If we don’t cut these margins, we don’t win,” said Shripal Shah, vice president for American Bridge.

Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton 61 percent to 34 percent in rural areas in 2016, according to exit polls. The support he gained there exceeded that of recent previous GOP nominees, and was a key reason he was able to win in the Midwest.

Some Democrats have become hopeful after the 2018 midterm elections that Trump’s support has softened with rural voters. However, Republicans dismiss that suggestion, and even some Democratic operatives insist the party would be better off focusing on driving up turnout in suburban and urban areas.

American Bridge officials describe their effort as one that will forgo conventional TV and digital ads and instead fixate on what they identify as “hyper-local” effects of Trump’s policies in each targeted rural area.

The campaign will focus on featuring rural voters who feel burned by the White House and are willing to speak on camera about it. Their stories, rather than just polling data, will drive the media strategy, the officials said.

Posts promoted last week, for instance, highlighted what the group said were job losses at Pennsylvania corporations whose CEOs benefitted from the Trump-backed 2017 tax bill, as well as damage done to dairy farmers caught in the president’s trade war.

“They might not trust a big bad Democratic super PAC, but they’re definitely going to trust their friends and neighbors telling a story that they relate to,” said Sacha Haworth, American Bridge’s political director and head of the rural voter initiative.

American Bridge has traditionally been in charge of Democrats’ national opposition-research efforts, providing damaging footage and information about Republican candidates up and down the ballot. Running a large paid-media campaign like this, officials there acknowledge, is a different effort than they’re used to.

But they also said that while presidential candidates focus on party loyalists in mostly urban and suburban areas during the primary, Democrats need someone reaching out to rural voters as well, especially as Trump ramps up his own re-election effort.

“Presidential candidates don’t have the resources to reach out to these voters,” Shah said.

And although paid media operation will be new for the group, the research that informs the ads is right in its wheelhouse. American Bridge officials said they have already assembled more than 20 such “local impact reports” that tie White House policies to negative local news.

One such document provided to McClatchy focused on Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania, where Trump won more than 58 percent of the vote in 2016. Over 17 pages, the report detailed outsourcing it says occurred at local companies, identified what it says were false claims from Trump about returning jobs, and the record number of local deaths from the opioid crisis.

Critically, Shah and Haworth said, the reports also link the bad news locally to an action taken by the Trump administration — the sort of local details they hope break through to voters.

Shah and Haworth said through on-the-ground canvassers and online ads, American Bridge is already scouring these areas for voters who will talk openly about negative effects Trump has had on their lives.

“I don’t know what we’re going to put on TV yet,” Haworth said. “That’s going to be born out with these boots on the ground that we have right now. They’re collecting stories, they’re talking to people, they’re canvassing. We’re talking to these people and we’re asking them.”

American Bridge officials said that by the summer of 2020, they could turn over their operation to the Democratic presidential nominee, though they emphasized they could continue the program on their own if need be.

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.