The Lincoln Project, a political group founded by Republican “Never Trumpers”, is a rare political creature that achieves bi-partisan ire across the ideological spectrum.
“If AOC is attacking you on one side, and Donald Trump is attacking you on the other, it means you’re over the target,” co-founder Reed Galen told The Independent.
“I think what it shows though, if those people are coming after you, is that they recognise there’s a lot of people that think the way we do.”
The Lincoln Project political action committee (Pac) was created by a group of Republican activists and consultants to prevent the re-election of Mr Trump and defeat the ideology that brought him to power. They aimed to do so by persuading traditional GOP voters to side with Democrats.
On the Lincoln Project’s first anniversary, advertising trade publication Ad Age ranked the group and its creative thinking among the top marketers of 2020 behind only TikTok, McDonald’s and Lowe’s. Editors praised the Pac, “whose go-for-broke attitude shows that fearlessness is a key ingredient for great creative”. It was a sharp turnaround from their first five months when they struggled to afford more than snarky tweets and YouTube videos.
Launched via a manifesto in The New York Times on 17 December 2019 titled We Are Republicans, and We Want Trump Defeated, the Lincoln Project declared the subsequent 11 months would be “dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box and to elect those patriots who will hold the line”.
It was co-signed by a collection of the group’s founders, with a lead byline of conservative lawyer George Conway, husband of the president’s then chief counsellor, Kellyanne Conway (more on the Conways in a moment).
While praised as viral marketing savants, the group could easily have been relegated to an election-cycle curio if the president hadn’t stepped in it.
“We’d raised about $2m up to that point and we raised about $2m in the next two days after that. We really only had been doing viral videos and a lot of content but didn’t have any capacity, financially or otherwise, to do anything else,” Mr Galen said.
That “point” was on 4 May when the president put the Lincoln Project on blast in a tweetstorm calling out its co-founders by name, sort of, for a video riffing on Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad from 1984.
“Don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad,” Mr Trump said about Ms Conway’s husband (put a pin in those Conways).
“John Weaver lost big for Kasich (to me). Crazed Rick Wilson lost for Evan ‘McMuffin’ McMullin (to me). Steve Schmidt & Reed Galvin lost for John McCain, Romney’s campaign manager (?) lost big to ‘O’, & Jennifer Horn got thrown out of the New Hampshire Republican Party.”
From that moment, the Lincoln Project began raising money at an “incredible clip”, said Mr Galen, or “Galvin” in Trump’s tweet. It allowed them to ramp up recruitment, hire political staff, expand production capacity, engage volunteers, and begin message testing for broader audiences.
In total, the group raised more than $82m from 5000 contributors on the momentum of Mr Trump being particularly irked by the 60-second “Mourning in America” video that called the country weaker, sicker and poorer under his leadership.
That gave them a bellyful of cash, largely from Democratic donors, with big-ticket contributions of $1m each from oil heir Gordon Getty and hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, and $400,000 combined from DreamWorks co-founders David Geffen and Jeffry Katzenberg.
Further down the Hollywood food chain were donations from Jennifer Aniston ($5,000), Felicity Huffman ($9,300), Ken Jeong ($3,000), and Jason Bateman ($6,000), according to FEC filings.
Staffed-up with about 40 employees and a war chest to spend on advertising, the Lincoln Project flooded the zone with more than 300 individually produced videos, another three dozen “rapid response” videos and thousands upon thousands of tweets.
In a 24-hour news cycle when pandemic lockdowns left much of America with little to do other than cycle through the news 24/7, the Lincoln Project’s content or the response to it was a constant presence in the election season’s daily doom scrolling.
As a result, they became the political Rorschach test of the year. Stare closely enough for long enough and the blotch of black ink revealed itself to be either a butterfly or a bogeyman, delivering us from evil or parting fools from their money.
Headlines rolled in accordingly. While much of the praise came exclusively from the liberal media complex of MSNBC, CNN and legacy news organisations, the criticisms transcended the political divide.
Arguably the most scathing critique was due to the unlikeliness of the source, late-night comedy host Stephen Colbert, whose most recent political interviews gave free kicks to both Joe Biden on the FBI investigation of his son, and Kamala Harris for her primary season attacks against Mr Biden.
No softballs were lobbed at The Lincoln Project on an episode of the Colbert-produced Tooning Out the News on CBS All Access, which parodied their Republican roots, overcooked expenditures and undercooked content as a stone-faced co-founder Rick Wilson watched on.
“President Trump is the most incompetent corrupt president in history, and we need to do everything we can to stop him after compensating our strategists complicit in the deaths of countless innocent lives and paying for overheads,” the parody began.
“Stop this corrupt grifter ruining America – donate to these savvy grifters who ruined it before and hope you don’t look into them.”
The seven-minute segment called out the group’s alumni from the Bush-Cheney administration that “unlike Trump, knew how to keep human suffering a few more degrees of separation away”. It also highlighted the 89 per cent of donations that had gone to overhead costs up until that point in July.
As noted by The Daily Beast, of which Mr Wilson is an editor-at-large, pro-Trump group America First Action shopped around opposition research on The Lincoln Project in a memo purporting to demonstrate the high fees on ad spending going to companies owned by the co-founders.
If attacks, as Mr Galen says, are a sign they’re over the target, then the Lincoln Project found themselves squatting over an election-sized bullseye.
Mr Galen told The Independent that, as of December, 80 per cent of donations went to voter contact and voter efforts.
“All of the production and a lot of the media spending is done through Summit Strategic. That’s not an unusual formulation,” Mr Galen said.
“Our results from our perspective speak for themselves and if folks want to continue to focus on campaign finance reports that’s up to them.”
While those results were enough to place the Lincoln Project at the top of Ad Age’s 2020 rankings, Mr Wilson told the publication that their flashy, viral videos that most people knew and that “pissed off” Fox News were just the tip of the iceberg.
“Those ads, quite specifically, were part of a psychological warfare effort against the president and his administration and his lackeys and his campaign,” Mr Wilson told the outlet.
Beneath the surface was the ground game happening in Cobb County, Georgia, and Macomb County, Michigan, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and Maricopa County, Arizona.
Most people online were tuning into the snarky and antagonistic videos on Lindsey Graham being a lost dog, Mr Trump returning to the White House “Mussolini-style”, or Mike Pence “backing away” from the president post-election.
Their most successful videos, meanwhile, were more solemn or aspirational and were running in the battleground counties that decided the election.
Memories reflected on a world before Covid. Protect lingered on the post-pandemic reality. In Our Moment, Captain Sully spoke about the responsibility of command, while Leadership compared Mr Trump’s command with President Eisenhower. Our Fight, meanwhile, went full Godwin’s Law and compared the president and his White House to Hitler and Nazi Germany.
In total, the Lincoln Project says they drove more than 242 million views across almost 5,000 individual ad units. Of those, 60 million views were of ads watched to the end rather than skipped.
“We’re certainly known for the tip of the iceberg about the hard-hitting snarky things we did,” Mr Galen said.
“But what we found is the aspirational stuff, and more of the evocative stuff and heart-wringing stuff we did, actually we saw was also most effective for voters.”
The voters they were trying to move were 3 to 4 per cent of suburban Republican women, college-educated Republicans, and independent-leaning men, or what Mr Galen and his colleagues called “the Bannon line”.
In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Steve Bannon said Mr Trump needed the Republican establishment to hold 2016’s “inside straight” of 80,000 combined votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that essentially delivered the presidency.
“If these guys can peel off 3 per cent or 4 per cent, that’s going to be serious,” Mr Bannon said of the Lincoln Project.
Whether the $82m in donations shifted those voters over the so-called Bannon line and made an impact on the election is still being debated.
Mr Trump increased his votes by about 12 million from 2016, while Edison Research exit polls found that he increased support among Republican voters by 3 per cent.
The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman said in a tweet that ad test data showed “direct messaging against Trump (@ProjectLincoln ads, etc.) is ineffective in swing states. Dem messages that actually move votes: talking about education & majoritarian economic policies.”
Democratic Super Pac Politics USA, meanwhile, analysed five viral Lincoln Project Twitter spots to measure whether they moved voters toward Mr Biden. They didn’t. And the more viral they went, the less persuasive they became.
Nick Ahamed, analytics director at Democratic Super Pac Priorities, told the Daily Beast that the most viral spot about supposed Russian bounties on American soldiers had more than 210,000 likes and 116,000 retweets but was the least persuasive.
“Our takeaway is that we as political operatives or people online on Twitter a lot aren’t necessarily a good judge of what is persuasive,” Mr Ahamed said.
“The underlying mechanism of persuasion, I think of it like cough medicine … People don’t enjoy having their mind changed.”
From the Lincoln Project’s perspective, they played a specific niche role as part of a larger coalition of groups that helped elect Mr Biden. That niche included three pillars: first, getting under the president’s skin, mostly via Twitter; second, driving those suburban, college-educated Republicans over the Bannon line; and third, influencing Senate races.
“Too often in politics, especially both in winning and losing, there’s this sort of black and white narrative that develops. You either did it and you were successful therefore everything else was successful, or you did this and it wasn’t successful and therefore everything else becomes a failure,” Mr Galen said.
“We didn’t win; Joe Biden won. We’re proud of the fact that we were helpful in our own way but, certainly, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had their names on the ballot. Lincoln Project wasn’t up for election.”
In the final reckoning, the Never Trumpers could claim success in getting under the president’s skin, and the debate of whether they moved Republican voters to the left will continue. But in influencing Senate races, the Lincoln Project was all tip and no iceberg.
Or as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, they should “take the L and publicly pledge to give a lot of their fundraising to the people who actually made a big difference”.
“There’s potential incentive bc @ProjectLincoln is def in scam territory w these results. It’s a pretty bad rep even tho GOP has a thing for failing up,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet following the election.
“Come clean, say ‘listen, we thought it’d work, it didn’t, & in good faith we’re gonna raise X mil for these ppl who deserve it’.”
The Lincoln Project targeted more than half a dozen Republicans up for re-election in 2020, including Lindsey Graham (he won), Mitch McConnell (he won), Dan Sullivan (he won), and Susan Collins (she won).
While Democrats won the White House, the GOP lost only one seat in the Senate, and control of the upper house of Congress will be decided by runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January.
“We spent about $20m on Senate races, which is probably somewhere like 5 to 10 per cent of what other people spent on those things but somehow it was up to us to be determinative. And no one was more surprised by the results of that than I was,” Mr Galen said.
Despite the results, the Lincoln Project is continuing campaigning in the Senate with the Georgia runoffs to oust “Trump enablers” Kelly Loffler and David Perdue.
They have partnered with Democratic groups like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, the NAACP and BlackPac, as well as lesser-known entities like MeidasTouch for more Twitter videos.
They received $700,000 from the Senate Majority Pac, closely linked with Chuck Schumer, who has vowed to first “take Georgia, then we change the world”. Left-wing lobby group Sixteen Thirty Fund has also bankrolled the Lincoln Project’s gambits with a $300,000 influx of cash.
Beyond January’s two Senate seats, the Lincoln Project is dialling in its sights on the 18 attorneys general and 126 House Republicans that publicly supported the Texas Supreme Court challenge to election results in key states.
As the goalposts move for whatever Trumpism looks like in a post-Twitter presidency, the Never Trumper movement becomes ever more Never Republican.
Among the founders, Steven Schmidt has registered full Democrat, while Ms Horn and Mr Galen have left the GOP as independents.
“I think while Donald Trump has been defeated it doesn’t appear like he’s going to go anywhere any time soon,” said Mr Galen, who has no plans on returning to the GOP.
“And the longer he’s there, the longer Republicans will stay in his shadow because they see it as the safe place to be.”