WASHINGTON — Voters in hundreds of small and medium-sized towns across America are about to be targeted with digital ads, press conferences and billboards featuring neighbors and friends who say they’ve been “betrayed” by President Donald Trump.
The effort is the main feature of the Democratic National Committee’s “war room” that launches on Thursday and is focused on defeating Trump in 2020, according to officials who briefed NBC News.
Responding to criticism that Democrats were too focused on Trump’s temperament and personal attributes during Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, the party’s main organizing arm says it’s making a major expansion of its opposition research team that will be “hyper-focused” on the impact of Trump’s policies on local communities.
A team of several dozen staffers have compiled an archive of thousands of documents obtained through local news and Freedom of Information Act requests that will be used to spotlight promises Trump made during visits to specific communities — and to “put a human face” on what’s happened since then.
Those include promises made to welders and pipefitters in Virginia Beach and Newtown, Pennsylvania, construction workers around Tampa, Florida and seniors struggling with high drug prices in Reno, Nevada. The DNC did not provide estimates on how much money they planned to spend on an effort that is planned to continue through the 2020 election.
While Democratic presidential candidates compete for the nomination, the DNC will bypass traditional primary states like Iowa to get a head start in targeting voters in battleground states Clinton lost, including Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia.
“Wherever the president goes, we’re going to hold him accountable on a local level for the ramifications of his policies,” said Saul Shorr, a Democratic media consultant advising the DNC. “People have absorbed the fact that he isn’t truthful. The real question here is ‘have they benefited or not?’” said Shorr. Whether it’s health care, taxes or infrastructure, “we think the answer is no.”
Trump ran his 2016 campaign, in part, on a pledge to prioritize “forgotten" Americans, especially in rural communities across the Midwest and South. "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump said in his inauguration address.
That campaign agenda included a tax cut primarily benefiting the middle class, bigger paychecks for working-class Americans, health care for all that would be better and cheaper than Obamacare and a manufacturing job renaissance.
But the president has recently said he won’t have a health care plan until after the next election. While manufacturing employment has been experiencing a strong run since Obama was president, a majority of Americans said that they expect their taxes to stay the same or increase this year in a recent NBC News/WSJ poll. And while wages have been modestly rising since 2014, those for average workers, especially without college degrees, have been stagnant for decades.
"The rich are getting richer, corporate profits are soaring, but the rest of us are still just running in place," said Adrienne Watson, director of the "war room" effort. "Trump has made the system more rigged than ever." Watson will run the effort for the DNC, along with research director Nick Bauer. Daniel Wessel will be the lead spokesman.
The Democrats’ database includes every single Trump rally in 2016, material that will be used to create digital and television ads of promises he made to local communities from Lansing, Michigan to Tallahassee, Florida.
That will be spliced with county and municipal statistics on indicators like wage levels and the number of local residents with pre-existing conditions who would be hurt by Trump’s budget cuts. For instance, if Trump visits Lordstown, Ohio, the DNC will highlight the administration’s efforts to cut $1.75 million to fund a transition center there to help laid off General Motors employees.
“Democrats are clearly too busy pushing their phony Russia collusion hoax to notice the large number of promises made and promises kept by President Trump,” said RNC spokesperson Michael Joyce in response to the charges of broken promises.
Joyce pointed to the confirmation of two Supreme Court Justices, many other federal judges, the 2017 tax cut, deregulations and a “booming” economy as evidence that “just scratches the surface of accomplishments made by President Trump and his Administration over the past two years.”
As its model, the DNC is using a 4-minute video it cut last year featuring Trump pledging his “allegiance” to workers and companies like Harley Davidson that includes local Kansas City coverage of company executives using their 2017 Trump tax cut to repurchase stock shares while shuttering a plant that cost hundreds of local jobs.
The DNC’s local focus is an acknowledgement from the party that, even as national leaders in Washington continue to conduct investigations around Russian interference in 2016 and Trump highlight’s national economic statistics, for many Americans the biggest worry is their local economy.
It also reflects concerns that, in 2016, the party didn’t focus enough on Trump’s business record, a major selling point for swing voters in small towns across America who thought he would use his business acumen to benefit them.
That history includes lawsuits from stiffed contractors and others that, Democrats say, is being repeated in the form of promises he’s broken to American voters. The DNC now has a database of 7,000 lawsuits involving Trump or his Trump Organization, including contractors like a Philadelphia cabinet maker who said the real estate tycoon’s refusal to pay him sent him into bankruptcy, or Trump’s failure to pay state or local taxes.
The Monday after Trump’s election in 2016, the DNC began taking the same approach with federal agencies, making numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain internal records about Trump and his policies, for instance correspondence between the Department of Labor, local business owners and government officials about the impact of Trump's policies.
Those records will be dropped into ads and press conferences featuring local residents and amplified by local news stations and papers.
The campaign is focused on all demographic groups, not just swing voters who supported Trump. For instance, when Trump visits Charlotte, North Carolina to stump for reelection, the Democrats plan to drop content featuring him, during an October, 2016 rally promising a “New Deal” for African American communities and expanding access to capital through “micro loans” for those communities.
During another October rally in Columbus, Trump said he would champion a student loan program that would cap repayment for at 12.5 percent of a borrower’s income. “They just go ahead and they get on with their lives because it’s very, very hard for young people,” he said.
Trump has not proposed either of these things as president.