The Lincoln Project’s 2022 Midterm Wrap-up
The Lincoln Project played a decisive role in defending American democracy during the 2022 campaign.
The following memo outlines our approach, lessons learned, and the path forward in the battle to stop Trump, Trumpism, and the rising authoritarian movement in America.
The Lincoln Project of 2022 is a smaller, smarter, and better organization than we were in 2020. We’ve refined our management, enhanced our team, tightened our strategic approach, and improved on our already award-winning creative content.
TLP has pioneered a new model of political advertising and campaign communications, and it works. For approximately $15 million, we out-thought and out-fought Republican political committees who spent billions. The GOP’s model is broken and didn’t work as expected in many places, all at a staggering cost.
In a year where statewide campaigns spent billions in broadcast television – advertising with little measurable effect – TLP’s unique model of compelling messaging, best-in-class voter targeting, massive social media impact, and proven earned media reach, vastly outperformed the old-style sledgehammer approach.
We used our unique organic content to drive awareness of key races, showcase MAGA extremism to selected audiences, and drive national press coverage to reshape the political narrative. To put it in perspective, TLP produced 115 hours of original streaming content and produced 185 total podcast episodes yielding 30,409,460 total downloads.
In addition to our battle-tested teams on the above domains, we formed The Union, a nationwide, 62,000-member volunteer force focused on recruitment, training, and deployment that produced decisive results in key races. We partnered with 70+ state and national organizations to ensure we could provide assistance wherever, and whenever it was needed. NOTE: Our Union team has already shifted its attention to the US Senate runoff in Georgia.
THE 2022 BATTLEFIELD: OUR VIEW
In the wake of the 2020 campaign, January 6th, and the dozens of anti-voter laws passed in 2021, we stated that democracy would be the key issue of the 2022 midterm elections. Yes, there were many other issues, including the Dobbs decision, election-denying candidates, and the GOP’s lack of coherent vision. It took a belief in American democracy – and the necessity to preserve it, to provide the umbrella the Democrats, Republicans, and Independents needed to elect pro-democracy candidates this year.
We knew from the beginning that Trump and Trumpist candidates would dominate the GOP playing field. Mitch McConnell had (relatively) more mainstream candidates in many states, and all lost to Trump-backed extremists. In Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, McConnell’s candidates were destroyed. The MAGA base dominates the GOP fully, with election deniers, January 6th apologists, conspiracy nuts, and Qanon believers representing a meaningful fraction of the GOP candidates.
We also anticipated the phony culture-war issues of stolen elections, critical race theory, trans rights, and the rest of the MAGA closet of imaginary demons would join with real-world headwinds of inflation, gas prices, and economic distress. These Republican go-to tactics, mixed with the aforementioned disastrous candidates, allowed for Democrats to not only stay in the game but to be successful on Election Day.
Finally, we knew the GOP strategy to imagine a “red wave” into existence was inevitable. We knew that by constant media spin and zone-flooding with phony polls to trick the national media, the Republicans would try to depress Democratic morale, turnout, and energy.
WHAT WE DID: THE EXISTENTIAL TARGETS
Unlike many of the Washington-based political committees (of either party) The Lincoln Project takes an outside view of what the most important races and objectives are in a given situation. In 2022, we ranked hundreds of races based on one key metric: Their importance to the defense and continuation of American democracy. This analysis, which is available for review here, led us to focus on the following states and races:
- Arizona: Governor and Secretary of State
- Michigan: Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State
- Nevada: Governor and Secretary of State
- Pennsylvania: Governor (Secretary of State appointed)
- Wisconsin: Governor*
*WISCONSIN CASE STUDY: With a week to go in the existential election for Governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers was locked in a race that could have gone either way against election denier Tim Michaels. The Lincoln Project had, at that point, run millions of targeted ads focusing on turning out younger voters, specifically Hell No targeting college campuses and the African American community in Milwaukee. In addition, we had pushed out millions of Bannon Line ads targeting pro-choice Republican women such as 1849, and highlighted the situation in Ukraine to targeted voters.
Yet, with four days to go, it became apparent this likely wouldn’t be enough. Tony Evers was standing at 2% Republican support and needed to get to 5% to have a shot at winning. We doubled our budget for the final three days across key counties of the state, letting Republican voters who believe the 2020 elections were legitimate and had a favorable impression of President Bush (about 85,000 total) see our Never ad more than five times per person per day.
How much impact did this have on the race?
As previously mentioned, a week prior to Election Day, Governor Evers stood at 2 percent support among Republicans. As you can see below, on Election Day, he received 7 percent of Republican votes. It was that margin that carried him over the Bannon Line.
How do we know this? The graphic below from the New York Times shows where Tony Evers increased his margins over the 2020 results for President Biden. As you can see, the places that tipped the balance for Evers are the exact places we were messaging to Republicans.*
All election-denying Secretary Of State Candidates were defeated this year. We ran our Secretary of State ad, S.O.S., in key markets as well as more targeted ads against specific candidates such as Finchem. In Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin, we targeted former Republican swing voters who did not believe the election was stolen and consumed media around the January 6th hearings – voters that without a reminder from us would likely default to the Republican candidates.
WHAT WE DIDN’T DO
Given our resources, we did not engage in several races we felt presented good openings for victory. In the Wisconsin US Senate race, we attempted to generically aid Mandela Barnes through our efforts on behalf of Tony Evers but lacked the resources to deploy specifically on his behalf.
In addition, TLP avoided mission creep, internally and externally. We kept staffing levels at roughly 25% of our 2020 headcount and applied rigorous metrics for new hires. Externally, TLP kept our focus on the Existential Races strategy.
EXPANDING THE BANNON LINE
The Bannon Line strategy has informed TLP’s work since the beginning. What is the Bannon Line? In January 2020 Steve Bannon (not a fan of the Lincoln Project) said that if we could capture 3-8% of the Republican vote Trump couldn’t win. This same metric and voter profile applied to the races we targeted this year. Bannon Line voters tend to be Republicans in affluent suburbs, likely college-educated, more likely to be professionals, and more likely to have higher incomes.
In 2022, we expanded the Bannon Line from the 3-8% range to a wider audience. It wasn’t just us; it was a striking political externality. Just as the massive social changes wrought by COVID reshaped the 2020 race, Republicans’ embrace of Vladimir Putin, the January 6th Committee hearings, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, organically expanded the Bannon Line. To take advantage of this opportunity, we packaged messages and targeting not simply on the issue of choice, but on the broader turn of the GOP toward radical restrictions on personal freedom and individual liberty.
We also targeted and activated key voter demographics where we thought we could make an impact; we pushed a late-campaign voter turnout spot featuring the voice of Leslie Jones, pushing the message into cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia while geofencing historically black colleges and universities and college campuses in critical states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
INVERTING THE CULTURE WAR
Joe Trippi made a compelling observation in late January 2022. “They do the crazy and we do the work.” Without Trump at the top of the ticket, MAGA candidates in our key races did the work for us; whether it was Doug Mastriano as the most anti-Semitic candidate in modern American history or Blake Masters as an alt-right tech-bro, we relentlessly messaged to the Bannon Line voters that 2022’s vote was a choice; a referendum on sanity vs. madness.
Those who emerged from the GOP primary system this year reflected an increasingly unpalatable and unelectable field of candidates. For the Republican Party, this is a Catch-22. To clear their primary, they had to cater to the Ultra MAGA voter. Once in the General Election, though, they were anathema to all Democrats, many Independents, and enough Republicans to wreck their chances.
AFTERMATH AND PREPARING FOR 2024
With Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto’s reelection in Nevada, Democrats will retain control of the United States Senate. They have a real opportunity to add another seat to their margin next month in Georgia, where we are already engaging. Mitch McConnell’s failure to win any race he needed will drive further dissension in his conference as Donald Trump and Trump-aligned senators blame him for their problems.
The margin in the US House will be less than five seats. This will create chaos in the Republican leadership race as Kevin McCarthy will bear the lionshare of blame for the GOP’s poor performance. If he is indeed elected Speaker of the House, he will be at the mercy of the likes of Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Jim Jordan.
What’s left of the Republican “establishment,” the donor and consultant classes and the media are in a lather about Trump’s responsibility for this debacle. Trump is indeed to blame for much of their trouble, but this rump of the Republican Party is once again displaying their blindness to the world as it is: Rank and file GOP voters are with Trump. They will be with Trump and his most extreme supporters.
Ron DeSantis and other pretenders to the throne have little chance to defeat Trump in a 2024 Republican primary, nor do they yet understand how to fight him. Watch for many of these same Republicans to fall back into line as Trump ascends once again.
With Trump’s announcement imminent (tomorrow evening per news reports) we have already prepared to welcome him to the 2024 presidential race. However, we understand that the 2016 race was a moment in time, as was the 2020 campaign. The 2024 election cycle will be different. We will take what we’ve learned in the three years since our launch and apply it to the fight at hand. We know Trump, we know how to beat Trump, and we will fight relentlessly for the next two years.
We should never conflate our preparation and willingness to fight with the idea that any of this will be easy. Our collective lack of imagination led us to this place and we can never allow that to happen again. We will have much more to share in the coming weeks about our plans for growth and expansion in 2023 and 2024.
– Rick Wilson – Co-Founder, The Lincoln Project