The Real Story About “Never Trump” Republicans

Data obtained by The Daily Poster show that Lincoln Project ads were often ineffective — and some may have even convinced some voters to support Trump.

This story was written by David Sirota, Andrew Perez and Julia Rock.

Republican operatives and their allies now frantically seeking credibility in the post-Donald Trump world have spent the week criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and suggesting that their television ads were responsible for defeating the president in the election. 

One conservative pundit even attacked The Daily Poster and asserted that so-called “Never Trump” Republicans delivered Trump’s defeat, even though Trump won more GOP votes in 2020 than in 2016. 

It’s a fun clickbait fairy tale designed to marginalize progressives and make sure nothing fundamentally changes — but there’s a big problem with the narrative: Ad test data reviewed by The Daily Poster show that many of the Never Trump Republican groups’ ads were ineffective, and few of them stood out as particularly persuasive compared to spots from other groups that aren’t being cast by the media as a decisive force in the election.

In fact, the data suggest some of the GOP groups’ messages may have inadvertently boosted support for Trump, making it harder for Democrats to win the presidential election. 

GOP operatives at the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT) raised at least $77 million this election cycle, much of it from cable news-watching liberals, for anti-Trump televsion ads, YouTube videos and expensive stunts like billboards in Times Square and outside Mar-a-Lago

That enormous cash haul is more than was raised by the Democratic Party’s unsuccessful national campaign to win state legislatures in advance of congressional redistricting. 

Data Show Lincoln Project Ads Were Often Ineffective

During the election, online panels of viewers using the Civis Analytics platform judged ads by candidates and prominent third-party groups on a month-by-month basis. That data, compiled by Open Labs, was shared widely among Democratic-aligned third party groups to evaluate the effectiveness of the spots. 

A detailed comparison of the tested ads show that spots from the Lincoln Project and RVAT were often outperformed by spots from Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, as well as other Democratic-aligned groups. 

One of the weakest-testing Lincoln Project ads was a media-touted spot that accused Trump of being too soft on China. An ad that envisioned Trump’s Mexico border wall lined with the coffins of coronavirus victims performed worse than all but four Democratic ads tested in August, out of 107.

In the document’s review of 65 Democratic-aligned ads on air as of election day, the Lincoln Project’s two tested ads ranked 52nd and 53rd for persuading voters to support Biden.

Even worse, two Lincoln Project and RVAT ads designed to generate support for Biden ended up convincing more panelists to support Trump’s reelection. One of those ads, from the Lincoln Project, criticized Trump and his supporters for using violent rhetoric and threatening to not accept the results of the election, which to be fair is happening. 

The other, from RVAT, featured a top George W. Bush foreign policy official criticizing Trump for calling World War I veterans “suckers” and “losers.” The one-minute ad, which was tested in late October, was based on a much-discussed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg, the hawkish editor of The Atlantic. 

One early Lincoln Project ad first tested in June scored well, and persuaded 2.6 percent of panelists to support Biden. The ad is a comparison ad, and mostly stays positive. The ad first plays 30 seconds of presidents looking the part in moments of crises. Then, there’s Trump announcing he’s sending federal troops to U.S. cities. At the end, they actually plug Biden for 15 seconds and play video of him saying he “won’t fan the flames of hate.”

Another better testing ad from the Republican groups as the race went on was a Lincoln Project spot in September asserting that Trump is making America more dangerous. That ad persuaded 1.7 percent of panelists to shift their vote to Biden. 

In Fact, The Numbers Do Not Prove It

The Lincoln Project’s GOP operatives raised huge money from liberals by asserting that they would peel away Republican support from Trump. However, on Wednesday, Washington Post reporters poured cold water on the idea that Never Trump groups succeeded in doing that. 

“Despite pleas by ‘Never Trump’ voices, the president secured a larger share of Republican voters nationally, 94 percent in 2020, than four years ago, when he won 88 percent and third-party candidates received more support,” they wrote. 

This point was backed up by pollster Ben Tulchin, who in this week’s Daily Poster subscriber live chat reviewed data showing that Trump actually increased his share of the Republican vote.

Nevertheless, Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote a column on Thursday asserting that the Lincoln Project and RVAT deserve credit for delivering Biden’s victory. He also attacked The Daily Poster and Ocasio-Cortez for questioning the groups’ effectiveness

“Never Trumpers played a critical role in beating him,” Boot’s headline read. “The numbers prove it.”

Boot said the groups “shared with me preliminary data to show that their work actually played a critical role in Biden’s victory.” He wrote: “Their numbers are in line with publicly available exit polls showing that nationally 7 percent of 2016 Trump voters and 8 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters backed Biden. Those figures are more than twice Biden’s current popular-vote margin.”

Those numbers don’t actually prove anything. Seven percent of 2016 Trump voters is equal to roughly 4.4 million votes. With some votes still outstanding, Biden is up by more than 5 million votes

The piece was quietly revised after several Twitter users pointed out that Boot had screwed up basic math. It no longer suggests that Biden's share of Trump voters was greater than Biden's popular-vote margin. 

The paper did not issue a correction and did not change the piece’s headline, which still gives the impression that numbers prove that Never Trumpers helped secure Biden's victory. The numbers don’t prove that at all.

Photo credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer


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