A super PAC backing President Joe Biden plans to spend upwards of $40 million starting in late spring focusing on Donald Trump’s mounting legal issues and his “threat to democracy,” an issue that Biden’s campaign itself has so far avoided directly attacking.
The idea is to try and amplify ads the group, called Unite the Country, feels are most likely to influence swing state voters who are moderate or conservative-leaning, and either anti-Trump or on the fence about the former president because of his four indictments — including two related to allegations he tried to overturn the 2020 election.
Those indictments proved to be political rocket fuel for Trump in the Republican primary. GOP voters saw him as the target of a weaponized justice system trying to end his political career. Trump dominated the first two nominating contests, getting over 50% of the vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and most public polling showed his support with Republicans intensified as his legal problems grew.
In June, an NBC New poll found Trump’s lead grew to nearly 30 points over former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who at the time was in second place. And over the summer, his standing with Republican voters only grew stronger as the indictments piled up.
But the pro-Biden group is betting that moving into the general election, that calculation will change and the legal troubles will be a drag on Trump’s chances.
“We feel like this section of the electorate is critical, if not the critical, swing vote,” said Steve Schale, the group’s director. “We plan on leaning in early and often on this.”
Biden’s campaign has so far tried to avoid directly attacking Trump for his legal issues over concerns it could fuel a perception that he is using his administration’s Justice Department to attack his chief political rival.
“The president has said from the beginning that he wanted an independent Justice Department, and we have to do just that,” Richmond, who previously was a top aide to Biden in the White House, said in an interview on ABC News’ “This Week.” “So we’re not going to comment. We’re not going to focus on Donald Trump’s legal problems.”
This stance much of the negative focus on Trump’s indictment will fall on outside groups like United the Country.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
Unite the Country — the original pro-Biden super PAC started in 2019 to support his first presidential bid — will focus mostly on digital ads with some TV sprinkled in. They have already been polling the issues in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, swing states that will play a crucial role in Biden’s re-election strategy. During the 2020 election cycle, it raised and spent nearly $50 million backing Biden. The group has reported raising $2.1 million so far in 2024, almost exclusively from union groups.
The poll, taken in late September, included 1,000 respondents from each of the three states, including 482 voters who said they had unfavorable views of both Trump and Biden — a segment of voters the group refers to as “no nos.” That type of voter backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by 17 points in 2016 but favor the former president 51%-48% over Biden now, according to Unite the Country’s polling shared with NBC News.
“The point is that these voters should be much more in Trump’s favor,” Schale said. “They were plus-17 Trump in the past, and the only thing keeping them where they are right now is the belief that a vote for Trump is a vote to end democracy.”
The polling focused on a series of messaging issues, asking respondents about “statements that could be used to describe former president Donald Trump.” Among those, 55% had very serious or serious doubts about Trump when asked about his role in a potential “coup,” a number that was 57% when asked about “indictments.”
In addition, 68% of those polled also said they believe strongly or somewhat that Trump “attempted a coup after the 2020 election.”
Each of Trump’s four indictments raised some concern with those polled, but by far the most concerning was the federal indictment brought as part of Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Of those surveyed, 52% indicated that it would most concern them if Trump was convicted on any of the counts related to that indictment.
That case will no longer begin in early March as was originally anticipated, according to an order released Friday by Judge Tanya Chutkan. The delay comes as a separate court considers whether Trump is immune from prosecution; it increases the likelihood that his first criminal trial will be in New York, related to the indictment alleging he falsified business records as part of a scheme to pay hush money payments to an adult film star ahead of the 2016 election.
That’s the indictment that ranked the lowest with the voters polled by Unite the Country, with just 7% saying they were most concerned if Trump was convicted in this case.
NBC News polling data released Sunday backs the notion that Trump’s legal troubles could provide problems for him in the general election.
Trump led Biden 47%-42% among registered voters, but Biden had a 45%-43% advantage when respondents were asked who they would support if Trump was convicted of a felony before Election Day. That’s despite the fact Trump led Biden by more than 20 points on which candidate would handle the economy better, and more than 30 points on which would handle the border and immigration issues better.
Some Republican pollsters also argue that the legal issues will not significantly drive voters because there is such high awareness of them — so there are few voters who haven’t already made up their mind on the issue — and traditionally, people vote based on the record of the incumbent.
“In 2020, Joe Biden was running as a Trump alternative, and because there was not a lot of campaigning, he was whatever you wanted him to be. He was the old-hand moderate, or Scranton Joe, or whatever,” said Adam Geller, a Republican pollster currently not aligned with a campaign in 2024 but who has done polling for Trump in the past. “Biden now has a long record, and not much of it is good, as you can see in his job approval ratings.”
“So, Trump’s legal issues notwithstanding, ultimately people are going to make a decision how they always make a decision, which is in large part based on a referendum of the incumbent,” he added.
Biden is limping into the general election season with approval ratings in most recent public polling under 40%, and Trump with slight leads over the former president in many, though not all, public polls.
Biden’s lagging approval rating numbers come even as his campaign and aligned committees have already spent significantly on TV and digital ads.
Biden’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee and Future Forward USA Action, the nonprofit arm of the main pro-Biden super PAC, have collectively spent more than $35 million so far on TV ads, according to AdImpact, but they have been unable to move the needle. Early messages tested in those ads have focused on climate change, attempts to lower high inflation and abortion, themes likely to continue when Future Forward kicks off a $250 million ad campaign set to begin around the August Democratic National Convention, The New York Times first reported.
Trump’s campaign says the wave of early spending with few positive results is an indication of Biden’s position of weakness.
“Crooked Joe Biden and the Democrats are spending millions attacking President Trump, and have weaponized nearly every level of government to interfere in this election,” Karoline Leavitt, Trump’s national press secretary, said. “Nobody fights harder for the American people than President Trump and he has never been in a stronger position to win re-election.”
But Schale, the pro-Biden super PAC, says their initial polling data gives them optimism that placing a spotlight on Trump’s legal troubles and alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election can make the difference in key states.
“A lot of these voters were up for grabs in 2020. The issue frame in 2020 was different, but this is without question a group of voters who voted from Trump in 2016 and didn’t want to as much in 2020,” he said. “But they needed a really good reason not too.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com