An anti-Trump group produced four ads attacking his legal troubles. They backfired.

In late September, a conservative group opposing Donald Trump quietly tested four TV ads that aimed to weaken the former president by focusing on a central issue of the campaign: His myriad legal troubles.

One spot, which was surveyed before an online panel of Republican primary voters, declared that the indictments against Trump had “worn” him “down” and undercut his ability to win the election. Another said the trials presented “too much baggage” and warned that Democrats would “sensationalize” them to hurt the ex-president. The hardest-hitting commercial raised the specter that Trump would be convicted, leading President Joe Biden to “cruise” to reelection.

All of the ads shared one thing in common beyond the topic on which they focused. They all failed or backfired.

Three of the four actually boosted Trump’s support among the participants. One — a softer-touch spot that features a voter saying Trump’s trials “worries” him — had no measurable impact on Trump’s numbers. The unaired ads, along with nearly 260 pages of accompanying data analysis, were obtained by POLITICO.

Strategists with the conservative anti-Trump political action committee, Win It Back PAC decided to shelve the commercials. They remain unaired.

Win It Back PAC representatives declined to comment.

The behind-the-scenes deliberations around the ads underscores how Trump’s legal problems have, if anything, helped — not hurt — his standing in the primary. With the first nominating contest less than three months away, a swath of Republican voters is making it clear they see Trump as the victim of the legal system, not a violator of it.

That dynamic has created a predicament for Trump’s rivals. Neither Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis nor former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, his leading opponents, have made Trump’s indictments a focus of their attacks on the former president. Rather, both have taken steps to defend him: After Trump was indicted for interfering in Georgia’s 2020 election vote count, DeSantis called it an “example” of the “criminalization of politics.”

While Haley has called Trump’s legal battles a “distraction,” she has also said if elected president, she would be “inclined” to pardon the former president and indicated she would vote for him in the general election if he were convicted.

Win It Back PAC conducted its study Sept. 15-19, a month after Trump was indicted in the Georgia case and over his role in instigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The online survey, which sampled 3,075 Republican voters nationwide, was designed to measure the impact each ad would have on Trump’s level of support against the full field of primary candidates, and also in a prospective head-to-head matchup with DeSantis.

“All four ads tested failed to move support away from Trump on both the primary ballot and two-way ballot with DeSantis, relative to a strongly pro-Trump baseline,” read one of the memos accompanying the ad.

The ad that raised the possibility of a Trump conviction, the memo says, “performed worst on the two-way ballot” against DeSantis. That commercial, and the one that said Trump’s indictments had “worn him down,” it adds, “backfired across almost all demographic groups.”

The document, which was authored by the Republican data firm Echelon Insights, does not offer any conclusions on why the commercials backfired. But in a section entitled “open-ended feedback” it quotes several participants pointedly defending the former president.

“I strongly disagree with this ad. I don’t think people are giving Trump a fair chance because of who he is,” said one.

“The thing that bothers me the most is the filthy lying individuals who are extremely corrupt that are trying to crucify Trump, which is obviously 100 percent unfair,” said another.

The memo quotes a third respondent saying: “Stop bashing Trump and stand behind him.”

Trump has promoted the idea that he is the victim of a legal system that is out to destroy him. His campaign has, among other things, sold blown-up posters of the mugshot taken after he was indicted for allegedly interfering in Georgia’s 2020 election vote count. The signed posters are captioned, “Never Surrender!”

Win It Back has spent over $6 million since it launched in July, airing more than a handful of anti-Trump ads in early nominating states plastering Trump. The emergence of the organization, which on its initial filing with the Federal Election Commission listed Club for Growth President David McIntosh as its designated agent, represented the latest twist in a yearslong turbulent relationship between Trump and the Club.

After the anti-tax Club spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to stop him from winning the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump and McIntosh became allies during his presidency. But their relationship soured during the 2022 midterm election when it backed rival candidates in the Ohio Republican Senate primary. The Club would later signal it was opposed to his 2024 comeback bid.

The Win It Back PAC commercials that did run questioned Trump’s ability to beat Biden in a general election. But the group has been off the air since August, as Trump rivals struggled to consolidate support. It is unclear if it will resume its attacks on the former president.

In late September, Club for Growth President David McIntosh wrote a separate memo to Win It Back’s donors in which he conveyed that the commercials that aired had succeeded in damaging Trump, but that it made little difference because other candidates failed to unify the anti-Trump primary vote around them. The memo was first reported by The New York Times.

From the outset, the group has tried to appeal to Trump’s supporters by offering a positive message about what Trump initially brought to the presidency but also warn that he would not be the party’s best candidate going forward.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative outfit overseen by billionaire Charles Koch’s political network, has also attempted to stop Trump. To date, the organization has spent more than $15 million on anti-Trump advertising, according to an official with the group. One digital ad from Americans for Prosperity invoked Trump’s legal baggage, making the case that it would undermine his ability to defeat Biden. Like Win it Back, Americans for Prosperity has not endorsed a candidate in the primary.

But such groups have in the past struggled to gain traction. In 2016, the Club and another group, Our Principles PAC, spent heavily to stop Trump from winning the primary. He won anyway.


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