Conservative donors and consultants are racing to fix what might be the worst strategic error so far in the presidential campaign — the nearly total failure of other candidates and their allies to attack frontrunner Donald Trump.
Opposing superPACs spent just $1.3 million attacking Trump in the seven months from June 2015, when he announced, to December, when he led the polls. In July, there was no anti-Trump spending at all. Only when the Iowa caucuses loomed did the spending accelerate, to $4.4 million in January and $9.4 million in February.
Eventually, the attacks concentrated on Trump. The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute analyzed independent expenditures by superPACs and other outside groups, and reported that in the final week of February Trump was the target in 92 percent of all attack ads.
Despite it all, Trump claimed 11 victories in the first 15 primary and caucus states.
Now, anti-Trump Republicans hope to deliver a critical mass of effective attacks before the next round of primaries in Michigan, Florida, Illinois and North Carolina:
Our Principles PACYouTube
Our Principles PAC, headed by Republican consultant Katie Packer, this week has a new ad slamming Trump University, a pricey, non-academic program that was aimed at would-be real estate investors.
In an ad that is starting to run today, Club For Growth Action argues that Trump's tough-guy image doesn't square with his record as a businessman. The ad is running in Florida, at a cost of $1.5 million.
At Our Principles PAC, Packer likes to say, "Frontrunners don't fall. People kick them." The superPAC has spent $4.4 million, and Packer said Trump's margins appear to be slipping. "We're on the right track," she said. "There just hasn't been enough of it."
She compared the effort to Mitt Romney's organization in 2012, where she was deputy campaign manager. The campaign and a pro-Romney superPAC spent $10 million in 10 days before the Florida primary, all of it targeting candidate Newt Gingrich and driving him out of the race.
Our Principles PAC was founded in January, financed mainly by $3 million from Marlene Ricketts, a Republican activist whose husband is investor Joe Ricketts. The Ricketts family owns the Chicago Cubs.
Some of the GOP's biggest donors are mobilizing to finance more ads. But Packer said the presidential superPACs have already tapped donors. She singled out Right To Rise USA, which raised $118 million to help Jeb Bush. "Right To Rise scooped up so much money early," she said, and when the superPAC's spending couldn't save Bush's candidacy, "people were disillusioned with it."
The first group to attack Trump was Club For Growth Action, the superPAC arm of the advocacy group for supply-side economic policies and smaller government, in 2011. CFG considers Trump much too fond of government assistance, from the Wall Street bailout to single-payer health insurance and eminent domain – the power to condemn property for development.
CFG spokesman Doug Sachtleben said the Club challenged Trump in 2011, when he started talking about a White House run. When he declared his candidacy last June, Sachtleben said, CFG said "he was not to be taken seriously, he was more of an entertainer."
Club For Growth Action spent $1 million advertising in Iowa, $1.5 million in South Carolina, and $1 million in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Sachtleben said the ads helped to drive Trump's poll numbers below Ted Cruz's in Iowa and Oklahoma, and helped to narrow his winning margins in South Carolina and Arkansas.
But Trump, unlike every other viable presidential candidate in the television era, doesn't depend on TV ads. The Wesleyan Media Project found that by mid-February, his overall TV spending totaled only about $6.6 million. The campaign depends mainly on big rallies and free coverage by cable news networks.
High-volume attack advertising could change that. Elizabeth Wilner, of Kantar Media/CMAG, a media tracking firm, said that if the attacks start sticking, Trump may have to buy airtime for ads that rebuild his image.