WASHINGTON (AP) — While Democrats wage a wide open primary, President Donald Trump is blanketing battleground states with online advertising that could help set the narrative heading into the 2020 campaign.
The blitz of ads run recently in states including Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania alarms some Democrats. They're worried by the more than $10 million Trump and his allies have already spent on digital advertising, a drop compared with the $1 billion his campaign could spend by Election Day.
For now, the ads are going largely unanswered as Democrats focus on their primary that's just getting into full swing. But Trump's early head start combined with his massive fundraising operation has stirred concern that it could be difficult for the eventual nominee to catch up.
"The real concern here is that Trump is able to have unchallenged positions when it comes to issues that a lot of voters care about," said Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of ACRONYM, a progressive group that specializes in digital campaigns. "We are going to see outside (Democratic) groups start to spend with offensive and defensive messages, but I worry that it's still not going to be enough to compete with the infrastructure the right has."
Many of the ads are chock full of conservative red meat, focused on building a border wall with Mexico, vilifying Democrats' investigation of Trump's 2016 campaign as a "witch hunt" and attacking the news media. A recent series that could resonate in manufacturing states portrays Trump as tough on China by declaring that the "days of cowering down to China are over."
Others appear aimed at softening his image, especially on issues related to race. The ads are unlikely to persuade African Americans to support Trump by large margins but could ease concern among moderate and suburban voters the president will need to win reelection — many of whom voted for Democrats during last year's midterms.
One battleground ad, viewed as many as 1 million times, shows footage of a White House event commemorating Trump's signature of a criminal justice overhaul. The president grins as Gregory Allen, an African American former prisoner who was released under the law, praises him for "continuing to make America great again."
In another, a middle-aged black actor plays "Howard from New Mexico," who thanks Trump for restoring his faith in the country. And in a third, a multiracial collage of people are all seen liking a social media post by "Melissa from Florida," who tells Trump that he makes her proud to be an American.
Trump's campaign denies they are trying to soften his image.
"We are happily sharing the president's record on improving health care, protecting preexisting conditions, enforcing the border and laws on the books, and giving 90% of Americans more money in their paychecks," said campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine.
Few expect Democratic candidates enmeshed in the primary to compete with Trump head-on when it comes to digital advertising. That will fall to outside groups and the Democratic National Committee until a nominee is chosen.
But while groups like Priorities USA and American Bridge plan to spend big, they have yet to ramp up. The DNC was carrying $6.2 million in debt with just $7.5 million on hand at the end of April, compared to the Republican National Committee's $34.7 million. And many donors have yet to go all in on a specific candidate.
Trump's campaign, meanwhile, has outspent each individual Democratic candidate by more than fourfold since January, when the primary unofficially kicked off, according to an analysis of data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive. In many battlegrounds, he's outspent most by at least double since March, the data shows.
"Now is the time you have to fire people up, explain the stakes and tell them what the other side is doing," said Rufus Gifford, who was finance director for President Barack Obama's campaign in 2012. "Scaring people is absolutely appropriate because the threat is real."
Still, others say such dire predictions are premature.
"Party fundraising is always difficult when you are out of power and a year and half out from the election," said Tom Nides, a prominent fundraiser and former Hillary Clinton adviser. "We will not win or lose because of money."
Priorities USA, the largest Democratic outside group, says it plans to launch an initial $100 million phase of its anti-Trump effort this summer. The group declined to say how much it has raised but spent about $200 million during the 2016 race.
Others worry donors are neglecting the DNC, which was roiled by turmoil and distrust in 2016 after hackers with ties to Russia leaked emails revealing the party favored Clinton over her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Robert Zimmerman, a prominent donor and DNC committeeman from New York, said the fundraising and spending gap is real. He says donors need to overcome their misgivings and step up contributions to avoid a repeat.
"It's profoundly worrisome, but right now it's not getting attention because everyone is focused on the presidential race," he said. "(Chairman) Tom Perez has got to make the case that the DNC is an essential piece of the equation and we can't wait for our nominee to be picked."
Following the discord of 2016, DNC officials say Perez has worked to rebuild the operation after inheriting an organization that had only three fundraising staffers. Although their Republican counterparts regularly outraise them, that doesn't always translate into winning, they say.
"Will the RNC outraise us? Yes, they will. Does that mean they are going to win? Absolutely not," said DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. "That didn't happen in 2018, that didn't happen 2017, that didn't happen in Alabama. Time and time again, they have not proven to us since 2016 that they can win with the resources they have."