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ANALYSIS

Three brutal campaign ads that tell us the state of the presidential race

Joe Biden was recorded on a smartphone as he spoke in Philadelphia on June 2.
Joe Biden was recorded on a smartphone as he spoke in Philadelphia on June 2.MARK MAKELA/NYT

There are more than four months until Election Day, but June effectively kicked off the general election advertising season, with a huge uptick in presidential ad spending. Biden, for example, just began his general election ads days ago.

The content of the ads themselves is both brutal and representative of this unique 2020 campaign — playing out during a pandemic, an economic collapse, and massive protests against systemic racism. But as the ads demonstrate, the campaign also features two old candidates, the oldest nominees in American history.

With that said, here are three particularly brutal ads out right now that deserve your attention.

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Trump campaign: “Fortitude”

First, some context: the last two times an incumbent president faced reelection they used the summer to try to define their opponents. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush’s campaign portrayed Democrat John Kerry as a “for it before he was against it” political flip-flopper who felt more comfortable in Europe and windsurfing off of Nantucket than he did in Ohio. (And that’s before an outside group began the swift boat ads in August calling into question Kerry’s military service.)

In 2012, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama nearly bankrupted his campaign in June after making the decision to spend so much money in television ads to drive home the point that Republican Mitt Romney was some rich guy who didn’t care about the little guy, a particularly effective message at a time of continued economic anxiety.

In 2020, however, Trump isn’t spending a considerable budget on defining Biden’s record or even showing how he is wrong for the moment. He is just straight-up going after his age and saying “Biden is clearly diminished.”

Lincoln Project: “#TrumpIsNotWell”

The framing that Biden, 77, is in mental decline has been long a theme of Trump’s Twitter feed. But Trump, 74, is, of course, the oldest person ever elected to the presidency. With that in mind, the group of disaffected Republican operatives behind the Lincoln Project have tried to flip the “too old” script around on Trump.

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The group portrays Trump as physically weak, with trouble walking and speaking.

“Why do so many reporters who cover the White House pretend they cannot see Trump’s decline?” the ad asks while also mentioning “a secretive midnight run to Walter Reed Medical Center.” That’s a reference to when Trump went to the center for an unplanned visit with a White House doctor in 2019 that the White House described as just part of a physical, even though it didn’t follow protocol.

Again, the ad isn’t about Trump’s policies, or outlook, or the nation’s health, but a rough take of his own health. (Which Trump claims is “just fine, thank you very much.”)

America First Action Super PAC (Trump’s official Super PAC): “Impact”

This is an ad about fracking, the controversial process to extract natural gas and oil out of the ground. Fracking has made the United States a leader in energy production around the world, but inside of the Democratic Party it has created division between environmentalists and blue collar workers in the party’s base who like the jobs created, particularly in rural areas.

The most interesting part of this ad, however, isn’t really about fracking, but testing how much the Super PAC can get away with saying things that are not true. This is a particularly interesting point now that television stations and social media companies are beginning to police content of ads more frequently.

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This ad claims that Biden is against fracking, which he is not. In fact, he caught a lot of criticism inside of the Democratic primary because he is for the practice, which is a particularly important industry in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, a different kind of ad from the Biden campaign: “Unite Us”

Biden went up with his first general election television ad, which is airing in six swing states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. This ad is fairly traditional and not particularly brutal, but tells us a lot about Biden’s message.

First, this is the type of soft, uplifting, and safe ad aired by a front-runner, a position that recent polling has confirmed that Biden holds. Second, it reinforces his message that he wants to “go back” to times when the country is less divided. Biden’s words of “healing” over images of unrest and Trump probably perfectly sums up the Biden argument this campaign year.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.