Early in Joe Biden’s presidency, Republicans openly conceded how poor a target he was for them. Their hits on the president simply weren’t sticking.
That hasn’t, however, kept Republicans from swinging away. Biden is far and away the GOP’s No. 1 villain on Facebook, according to an analysis conducted by the Democratic-leaning communications agency Bully Pulpit for POLITICO.
Over the last three months, Republicans and affiliated groups and committees have spent nearly $2.5 million trying to paint Biden and his priorities in a negative light. That’s more than three times what they’ve spent on Facebook ads targeting other leading Democrats — from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former President Barack Obama — and issues like socialism, fake news, and “defund the police” combined. POLITICO opted to review the last three months of data, after Facebook lifted the ban on political ads on its U.S. platform.
But there has not been a consistent theme to the anti-Biden spots. The attack lines getting pushed most on the right go after Biden’s massive infrastructure push, his call for raising taxes, dark money groups that support his agenda, his position on guns and the rise of gun violence in U.S. cities, according to Bully Pulpit’s analysis. The conservative outfit Americans for Prosperity is leading the online barrage against Biden, with spots on infrastructure, taxes and the American Jobs Plan. The National Rifle Association has run online ads targeting Biden on guns, claiming that the “Biden Political Machine [will] dismantle the 2nd Amendment.”
But others running ads go after Biden on wholly different topics. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has run spots accusing the president of trying to pack the Supreme Court with “radical leftiest justices” (Biden has only put together a commission to study the composition of the courts).
The National Republican Congressional Committee has hit Biden for abandoning President Donald Trump’s border wall construction. A more recent slate of Facebook ads from a Trump fundraising committee paint Biden as a “washed-up, career politician who has no clue what he is doing.”
“Americans deserve to know the compounding failures of the Biden administration, which the mainstream media continues to ignore,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Emma Vaughn.
The onslaught of anti-Biden spending represents what Democrats view as a “spray and pray” strategy by Republicans to try and weaken the president before the midterms. With Biden’s approval rating holding relatively steady in the low-50s, conservatives are hopeful that one of the charges will break through and eventually cause a dent in his approval rating.
But political veterans say the approach is likely to run into major hurdles. Opposition parties tend to do better when they have one, clear thematic attack line against a sitting president. And it remains difficult to portray Biden as a villain, owing to his lengthy time in public office.
“I think when he makes mistakes, gaffes or whatever, I think that that’s baked into the cake,” said David Axelrod, the former adviser to President Barack Obama. “Look at the approval ratings and they barely budged. If I were them, I’d be concerned about their ability to move numbers. It’s not at all clear to me that they can.”
The ferocity and frequency of the recent Republican attacks on Biden is notable given past GOP concerns about whether the president was ‘Teflon’ and acknowledgments early on that he “is not a good bad guy.”
To a degree, those fears still prevail. Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, conceded that the president isn’t toxic with the broader American electorate; that, unlike with Barack Obama and Obamacare, simply mentioning his name doesn’t make his legislative initiatives more toxic.
“If you wanna stop legislation, you do not call it the ‘Biden Voting Rights Bill’ because for the broader electorate he’s … Joe Biden,” said Wilson.
Where attacking Biden did serve a purpose, Wilson said, was in generating enthusiasm and donations from the right — a point other conservative groups echoed as well.
“Joe Biden’s name is jet fuel for online fundraising and digital engagement because it’s synonymous with the Democrats’ disastrous policies,” said Chris Martin, deputy executive director at America Rising, the GOP opposition research group.
For the White House, the intensification of the anti-Biden ads — and the scattered focus of them — has raised some basic strategic questions: mainly, do they refuse to engage in many of the political back-and-forths over issues like immigration, culture wars and disinformation-driven stories or address it head on?
So far, the White House is largely taking an ignore-the-drama approach.
“We are laser focused on putting an end to the virus, on improving the lives of Americans, and on getting our economy back up and running,” deputy press secretary Chris Meagher said.
While Biden may be able to lean on a decades-built reputation to serve as a counterbalance to the attack ads, other Democrats don’t have that luxury. That includes the Vice President, Kamala Harris, who has been a boogeyman for the right herself.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, for example, sent “600 unique messages highlighting the damaging socialist agenda of the Biden/Harris Administration,” according to a committee spokesperson. They wouldn’t say how much money has been raised from those emails, but did say many of them focus on the flood of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Other ads that don’t mention Harris in the text sometimes included a picture of her alongside Biden.
Democrats and those in Harris’ orbit, including aides, weren’t surprised by the GOP’s focus on the vice president. The initial announcement that she would be overseeing the administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration proved to be catnip for Republicans.
But vice presidents don’t typically bear the brunt of attack lines as much as Harris has. Former senior adviser to Biden’s campaign Alencia Johnson said Harris’ identity plays the largest role in understanding why Republicans see her as a useful mark.
“In contrast to Biden, he has a woman of color as second in command,” said Johnson. “There is a very real discomfort and displeasure with Black people, with women, anything other than white men in these positions of power and that is what all this is rooted in.”