The Lincoln Project’s Rick Wilson on the ads that actually worked
He made his name over the decades as a high-powered, highly effective Republican political strategist—who then famously broke from the GOP over its embrace of Trump—but when it comes right down to it, Wilson thinks of himself as a guy who makes ads for a living.
The Lincoln Project, of course, pumped out a lot of ads—with such finesse and success, under Wilson’s creative direction, that Ad Age has named the PAC one of 2020’s Marketers of the Year. In this in-depth conversation, Wilson (speaking by phone from his home in Tallahassee, Fla.) reveals some of the art and science behind TLP’s barrage of remarkable, agenda-setting, viral political ads.
Do you have a specific sense of how much you moved the needle?
We have very specific metrics in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, that we played a decisive role.
And what does that data show? Who did you shift?
We moved former Republicans, independents and current Republicans over what we call the Bannon Line. Steve Bannon, who is no fan of us, said, early in the process, if these guys can move 2% or 3% of the Republican vote, Trump is gonna lose. Well, from the metrics we’re showing, in the swing states, where we spent I would say 80% to 85% of our resources, we moved the Bannon Line, and crossover Republican votes, between 9% and 13%.
That is a huge accomplishment. We are enormously proud of the work we did. We played, as we said from the very beginning, a game of small numbers. I was not out there trying to convert Trump voters. I was not, for the most part, trying to fire up Democratic voters. We were building a campaign from the very start that was meant to do certain things. The No. 1 thing was blocking. We saw already that a lot of Republicans had drifted away from the party in 2018. And they were primarily female, they were primarily better educated.
And the blocking ads were meant to prevent those voters from drifting back to the Republican Party?
The blocking ads—let me bifurcate one thing quickly. A lot of people were like, “Oh, you ran these flashy viral video ads, did they move the voters?” Well, The Lincoln Project was an iceberg all along. Those things on the surface, the really flashy things that got the president’s attention and pissed off, you know, Fox News and sent Tucker Carlson into a rage and all these other things—those ads, quite specifically, were part of a psychological warfare effort against the president and his administration and his lackeys and his campaign. And those were a lot of fun. But those weren’t the ads everybody was seeing out in the states. You know, the ads about COVID and the ads about the Confederate flag—those were the ads that were running in the states.
So an awful lot of the blocking campaign had specifically to do with preventing Republicans who had gone away from the party, from going back. We wanted that educated, suburban, college-educated voter to see the ad with the 300-pound white guy carrying the Confederate flag in one hand and an AR-15 in the other, we wanted her to think, “Oh, God, if I vote for Trump, I’m with him. If I vote for Trump, that’s me.”
It’s the sort of the negative aspirational concept. Where you’re saying to people, you’re not just making a political decision, you’re buying into a whole lifestyle. Is your lifestyle the Alt-Right and the screamers and the crazies and the QAnon and the Confederate flag and the Charlottesville boys? We understood the social power of those ads to block those Republicans who split from the party from coming back. We understood that pushing that angle was a central mission.
Where were you pushing that angle specifically?
Places, you know, like Cobb County, Georgia, and Macomb County, Michigan, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and Maricopa County, Arizona. These are educated suburban areas. We were flipping and inverting the old Southern Strategy, which was the not-so-subtle It’s-us-or-the-Black-people message of the old Republican Party—and frankly, the new one, even more explicitly now. We were essentially saying, you know, “Make your choice. You can be with them, or you can be with us.”
Now, the blocking ads were enormously successful—we’re very happy with that. They’ve helped contribute to a major realignment of the suburban vote in this country. And what people don’t realize is there are about 30 counties in the suburbs in this country that make up about 40% of the overall vote in every presidential election.
So while the media chattering class in New York and D.C. was paying attention to some of the more obvious, viral things that you did, The Lincoln Project was focusing on those counties.
We went to fish where the fish are. The second category of those persuasion and activation ads were called “wedges.” And the wedges had to do with bringing COVID into the equation. Our research and everyone else’s showed that it was a very powerful force of shifting voters away from Donald Trump. And rightly so. This is something that has profoundly altered the fabric of the country. So that would have been ads like “Mourning in America” and “Memories”—all the COVID-related ads were wedges into Trump.
And you did state-specific versions of, for instance, “Mourning in America” that were keyed to specific voters.
Correct. So, “Mourning in Pennsylvania,” we were running that ad a lot in what we call the T, the large number of very red counties between Philly and Pittsburgh. So we invested very heavily, especially in the last three-and-a-half to four weeks, in the T to make those voters say, “Shit. This thing is bad. He’s mishandled it. It’s not working.”
And look, a lot of those ads were targeted at likely voters. Who are likely voters in Pennsylvania? They’re 60 years and older. So, you know, they would see messages like “Mourning” and messages like “Memories,” and those would be communicating to them in a way that split them—and all I cared about was moving them into neutral. I didn’t really care about winning them over. I just wanted them to not come out and vote. ... We were trying to, you know, send them a clear message that the guy they support is a disaster. And to reduce their enthusiasm, which we feel like we had some success in that.
Speaking of negative associations and the Alt-Right, has Bannon called for your beheading yet?
Not yet, but any old time now [laughter].
In addition to all of the attack ads, you did a number of very amazingly positive pro-Biden ads, like “Biden’s Moment.” Did you feel like there was a moment where you said, “We’ve overdone the attack ads”?
No. Our goal in that was to speak to voters in our pool using the vernacular and language that is explicitly usually reserved for Republicans. So, Democrats would not have thought—they just wouldn’t!—to put Joe Biden on screen saluting troops and have jet fighters flying overhead.
Yeah. And a shot of Biden praying in church.
Right. They would just not process that as an idea. They would say, “Oh, yeah, well, we need to show him with, I don’t know, frontline health care workers.” That’s all fine and good. That’s great! It’s lovely! Or they would say, “Well, you know, there aren’t enough soldiers of color in that shot, so we can’t use it.” Look, Steve Schmidt [a Lincoln Project co-founder] often says that we’re like a special forces unit. We have a very specific mission. We have very specific skill sets to accomplish that mission. And, you know, it’s not pretty all the time how we do it. But we go after the X, we go after the target. We want to get there and accomplish it. So whatever the toolbox is. And in some places, we were buying Joe Biden some insulation from the attacks that we knew would be coming on his family. We would be buying blocking assets to the attacks that we knew would be coming.
“Biden’s Moment” was old-school, slick, high-production-value, GOP-style patriotic ...
Lotta flags, yes. It felt like it was from the Reagan era, basically.
By the way, if you don’t think I was stealing—stealing lavishly—from Hal Riney [the advertising legend who created “Morning in America” for the Reagan campaign in 1984], you’d be mistaken [laughter]. We wanted to frame Biden as a Reaganesque, big, broad, good-hearted leader. And then we understood what was coming—the attacks on Biden that we knew would be coming.
You understood because you and your team, at one time, were doing exactly that sort of thing!
Right. Yeah, yeah. Part of this isn’t rocket science. It’s just, like, what would we be doing? How would we be doing this?
How would you fight yourself, basically.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Keep reading: Click here for Part 2 of Simon Dumenco’s interview with Rick Wilson.