The Lincoln Project Was a Giant Grift

The Lincoln Project said it would win over Republican voters from Donald Trump. Instead, Trump consolidated his base as the group burned $67 million that could’ve been spent better on real political organizing.

The Lincoln Project sponsored a billboard of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in Manhattan's Times Square. (@LincolnProject / Twitter)

A group of longtime Republican operatives depicting themselves as anti-Trump stalwarts convinced liberals to give them more money for ineffective television ads and stunts than was raised by the Democratic Party’s national campaign to win state legislatures.

The result: Donald Trump won more Republican votes than he did in 2016 as Democrats again lost state legislatures in advance of redistricting that could determine control of Congress for the next decade.

Meanwhile, the GOP operatives are reportedly positioned to go from lighting liberals’ money on fire during the 2020 election to now using liberals’ money to launch a media empire that could push a new Biden administration to the right.

The GOP super PAC, called the Lincoln Project, raised at least $67 million this year from liberals who were told by one of the group’s cofounders that it would win over “independent-leaning men, those college-educated Republicans, the suburban Republican women.” The Lincoln Project was cofounded by Steve Schmidt, who was John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager and who has been publicly boasting that he led the campaigns to help George W. Bush install right-wing judges on the Supreme Court.

While the Lincoln Project’s YouTube videos lampooning Trump received millions of views and endless promotion on MSNBC, the ads proved ineffective in the group’s stated goal: As the Daily Poster first reported, Trump actually increased his share of the Republican vote in 2020 as compared to 2016, when the Lincoln Project did not exist.

In all, Trump had support from 91 percent of Republicans and voters who lean Republican, according to a Fox News Voter Analysis that surveyed 109,000 people nationwide just before the election. Although Biden outperformed 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton in suburban areas, Trump won a higher percentage of white women in 2020.

As Lincoln Project burned liberals’ money on unpersuasive videos and expensive stunts — including a Times Square billboard in the uncontested locale of Manhattan — the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee raised far less money in its battle for control of legislatures.

The subsequent losses at the state level mean Republicans will now be in a position “to draw favorable maps that will help them elect their preferred state and federal representatives for the next five election cycles,” according to a post-election report by Politico.

Failing to Focus on the Economy

While the news media was manufacturing false stories about the Lincoln Project moving GOP voters, Trump was consolidating his base — and keeping the race close amid a deadly pandemic — by focusing on the economy as his opponents personally insulted him and did not aggressively promote an economic message.

Exit polls showed the largest plurality of voters saw the economy as the top concern — and Trump won 82 percent of those voters.

Trump invested heavily in economy-themed ads. National Public Radio noted that in the final weeks of the campaign, Trump’s ads “attack(ed) Biden over trade and the economy” and cast “the election as a decisive moment for the country’s future and emphasizing the candidate’s personal story and character.”

Many of the Lincoln Project’s videos were focused on making Trump look like a buffoon, a slimy salesman, a bad role model, or a misogynist — things that people already well know. Seventy-three percent of voters said a candidate’s positions on the issues were more important in their presidential vote than a candidate’s personal qualities.

The group did put out some economy-focused ads in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa, as part of its “Mourning in America” series (a reference to a famous Ronald Reagan ad). But the ads were more bleak than compelling, as they purely dump on Trump without any pitch for why Democrats would be better.

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman noted last month that “direct messaging against Trump (@ProjectLincoln ads, etc.) is ineffective in swing states. Dem messages that actually move votes: talking about education & majoritarian economic policies.”

The Lincoln Project’s failure to move targeted demographics was on display in key battleground states. In Iowa, for example, the group made headlines with a series of ads aimed at convincing women to vote against Trump. On election night, exit polls showed Trump won a slightly larger share of female Iowa voters in 2020 than he did in 2016.

MSNBC Tells the Lincoln Project to “Take a Well-Deserved Victory Lap”

While the Lincoln Project failed to generate significant Republican defections, the effort has been a financial windfall for GOP operatives.

Earlier this year, the group was lampooned by Stephen Colbert’s cartoon show for spending so much money on overhead rather than on ads. By the end of September, the group had funneled $4.5 million through Summit Strategic Communications, run by the group’s cofounder Reed Galen. The group also reported paying $3.9 million to Tusk Digital, led by another Lincoln Project cofounder, Ron Steslow.

Despite all the data about the Lincoln Project’s failure, MSNBC host Brian Williams asserted Wednesday that the group helped swing the presidential race to Joe Biden, saying they “helped make this race what it is and what it may be if and when we get over 270.”

Williams told the Lincoln Project’s senior advisor, Michael Steele, that he should “take a well-deserved victory lap on the part of all these former leaders and strategists who got together to push the other side.”

Williams — who was caught repeatedly lying about his own career a few years ago — cited no data in assigning credit to the Republican operatives.

On Wednesday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes spoke with Lincoln Project senior advisor, Stuart Stevens, about the potential of two runoff races for Georgia Senate seats deciding control of the Senate in January.

“Can you imagine the amount of money that is going to be spent and raised on those two Senate runoffs in the state of Georgia?” Hayes asked with a nervous laugh.

“Well, look, in the Lincoln Project, I spent part of the day making ads for both of those races,” Stevens said. “We’re going to be in there as heavy as we can, as will most of the known political world.”

The Lincoln Project did not report making any independent expenditures in either of the Georgia Senate races.

Another Lincoln Project senior advisor, Kurt Bardella, reiterated Thursday on MSNBC that “the Lincoln Project will look to be very active” in the Georgia runoffs.