Swing state voters are being targeted with political ads hammering President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the organizations behind the ads are taking steps to ensure that they and their funders remain shrouded from public view.
This week, Not In Our America, a new Facebook advertiser, began buying up promoted space on the platform to attack the administration’s coronavirus response in the key 2020 states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona.
The ads are the newest addition to a handful of Democratic and progressive groups going after the president over his handling of the crisis, suggesting he is diverting coronavirus relief aid to “states which are important to his re-election.” The amounts spent are relatively small so far. Not In Our America dropped less than $1,600 on Facebook ads on Monday, its first full day in existence. But the ads reached as many as 70,000 people in those four states.
Those totals are likely to increase significantly over the coming weeks. But it’s not clear that voters who see Not In Our America’s ads in their Facebook feeds will have any idea who is trying to sway their votes—or providing the financing to do so.
Like other new anti-Trump advertisers, Not In Our America has taken steps to hide the identities of the people or organizations behind its effort. The group’s website simply says its activities are “paid for by private funds.” The address listed in its Facebook advertising disclosures is a Wyoming registered agent service. Website registration data has been scrubbed of identifying information. Its listed phone number is a Google Voice line, and messages left there were not returned.
Similarly opaque is a network of Facebook advertisers called The Story of US, which has also been targeting people in key swing states with ads going after the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. The group has run more than half a million dollars of Facebook ads since last year on three pages focused on Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado.
Many of the Story of US ads use popular memes to try to ding the president on the coronavirus issue. “The White House appears more concerned with falsely making the economy look good than protecting the lives of thousands of Americans,” declared the caption of one recent promoted post.
Who exactly is behind the ads is less clear. The address listed in Facebook disclosures corresponds to a Philadelphia public relations firm, Chatterblast Media, that has worked with Democratic groups in the past. The firm did not respond to multiple inquiries about its involvement.
The Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 has provided plenty of fodder for the president's political opponents as he approaches his reelection contest, and that’s borne itself out in the sheer amounts of money being spent on advertising on the issue. Democratic and progressive organizations have poured more than $20 million into coronavirus-related ads hitting Trump and Republicans, the Washington Free Beacon reported on Tuesday.
Democrats face the expensive challenge of countering a president who is in front of the cameras on a near-daily basis touting his administration’s work to address the crisis. Trump’s political machine has done little in the way of advertising on the coronavirus issue. But the omnipresence of Trump himself—who has relished the earned media and high ratings that his daily press briefings provide him—is forcing his opponents to try to counter that messaging through paid media of their own.
The bulk of that advocacy has taken place through some of the more prominent—and deep-pocketed—nodes of the Democratic political machine, with groups such as super PACs Priorities USA and Unite the Country dropping huge sums on digital and broadcast ads on the issue.
But super PACs are, by their legal nature, more transparent about their finances, including who is providing the funds for their political advertising. Other nodes in a loosely affiliated network of anti-Trump political groups are structured to provide far less information about their operations and financial backers.
Among such groups are various anti-Trump outfits organized under the auspices of “fiscal sponsors” such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive nonprofit that houses scores of subsidiary iniatives. Those initiatives operate much as independent advocacy groups would, but they are not technically stand-alone organizations. That means that they don’t have to disclose their individual finances; rather, their fiscal sponsor discloses topline financial information for all of the groups in its portfolio.
That makes it difficult to divine information about organizations such as Protect Our Care, a Sixteen Thirty Fund-sponsored group originally conceived to defend the Affordable Care Act. The group has run hundreds of thousands of dollars in broadcast and digital ads, including a number of recent spots going after Trump’s response to the coronavirus.
One of the most popular ads hitting on Trump on the issue—which overlays Trump’s early statements downplaying the virus with an animated graph showing rising infection rates—has come from the group Fellow Americans. As a 501(c)(4) “dark money” nonprofit, that group is not required to disclose its donors.
Another dark money group, the Democrat-aligned digital outfit ACRONYM, has also run a host of coronavirus-themed anti-Trump ads on its various web properties. Courier Newsroom, an Acronym-backed network of state-specific news outlets, has also gone after Trump over the issue through its various media organs.
Courier is not an explicitly political organization, and indeed it insists that it retains full editorial independence from its more politically minded backers. But those backers’ willingness to pony up money for its style of dispassionate presentation—rather than the more heavy-handed tone of a traditional attack ad—is a break from past Democratic tactics, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn, a progressive strategist and donor adviser.
Previous election-year strategies have assumed that voters will respond to ads run close to election day, but that ones aired months out will be largely forgotten by the time voters go to the polls, Mehlhorn said. But Democratic strategists increasingly believe, he said, that the most effective tactic will be to define the Trump administration’s ostensible failures before the worst of the virus hits.
“Now is the time for facts to get through about what is going on. Now is when we have to push this stuff out,” he said. But voter attitude data shows people are increasingly wary of ads that are “too slickly produced,” he added. That calls for more subdued ads such as the one from Fellow Americans, or ad strategies that attempt to present their attacks as factual—or even as news content itself. “News articles actually break through,” Mehlhorn said.