The negative ads attacking Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Facebook pages and television screens are as relentless as they are varied, as if plucked from a vintage Trump rally rant: Some make unfounded inferences about his mental state, saying “geriatric health is no laughing matter.” Others paint the presumptive Democratic nominee as “China’s puppet.”
It’s the first wave of a long-promised campaign of attack ads from the Trump campaign, revealing a re-election effort eager and unafraid to plunge into negative advertising to try to define the president’s general-election opponent early in the race.
The ad offensive, backed by a budget considered significant for this stage of the campaign, represents a turning point in the election. Though President Trump often takes to his Twitter account to skewer Mr. Biden as tired and boring, his campaign’s expansive digital advertising operation was until recently almost exclusively focused on raising money and finding new donors online.
Now, flush with cash, the campaign can easily afford to hammer Mr. Biden with attack ads. But the early onslaught also shows the challenge facing Mr. Trump and his advisers: With the coronavirus ravaging the country, the economy in tatters and Mr. Trump’s halting response to the crisis drawing criticism, they have to find a way to level the political playing field.
Through his first three years in office, Mr. Trump has never been able to substantially grow his base of supporters, often choosing instead to simply rile up his most devoted followers. To win voters beyond that, he will need to depict his opponent as an equally unacceptable alternative, just as he did in 2016, elections analysts said.
“If this election is about Trump, he probably loses,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “Trump’s only hope is to make the election about Biden.”
But running such varied online messages, Mr. Goldstein said, shows that the Trump campaign is still testing out the most effective lines of attack against the former vice president.
“All of those ads that they put out — one on China, one on verbal missteps and the state of Biden — what they’re doing is testing those to see which resonate best with different sorts of people,” Mr. Goldstein said. “And then whichever ones that work best on Facebook, then, first, you’ll see more of them on Facebook. Then they’ll fire for effect onto television.”
In May alone, the Trump campaign has spent or reserved about $7 million on television airtime in local markets, fueling negative ads that repeat xenophobic tropes regarding the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, and unearth positive comments Mr. Biden has made about China in the past.
The Biden campaign said Friday that the negative ad campaign was evidence that Mr. Trump was struggling with the impact of the coronavirus.
“After watching Donald Trump’s approval rating plummet week after week as his historic failures to confront coronavirus are laid bare, his panicked campaign is now inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract from the harsh reality: Almost 90,000 Americans are dead, and many of those lives could have been saved had Trump acted early,” said T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign.
The Trump campaign’s ads that focus on China have two lines of attack. One criticizes Mr. Biden for saying the president’s decision to restrict travel from China because of the coronavirus outbreak was “hysterical xenophobia.” But most of the ads simply highlight statements that Mr. Biden made when he was vice president, like “China is not our enemy.”
Mr. Trump, too, has at times praised China and its president, Xi Jinping, occasionally undermining attempts by aides and his campaign to portray China as a villain responsible for the virus.
The Trump campaign is suddenly moving to play catch-up after Democratic groups aligned with Mr. Biden have taken to the airwaves to attack Mr. Trump, including over his performance in responding to the coronavirus. Two groups, Priorities USA and American Bridge, have spent at least $20 million on anti-Trump ads since March 1.
Mr. Trump’s campaign has been frustrated with its own aligned super PAC, America First, for not doing more on television during this period of time.
Indeed, the last incumbent president to run for re-election, Barack Obama in 2012, benefited from an aggressive super PAC. At the time, Mr. Obama’s campaign and his allies aired constant negative ads against Mitt Romney, largely with the help of their supportive super PAC. And Mr. Obama was in a much stronger position in that race than Mr. Trump is currently.
The Trump campaign declined to comment.
Though the Trump campaign has never shied away from controversial messaging, the decision to directly go after Mr. Biden’s age (at 77, Mr. Biden is four years older than Mr. Trump) risks a blowback, from older voters and others. One of the ads jokingly depicts Mr. Biden in a nursing home, a framing that could draw criticism as more than 28,000 people have died from the coronavirus in nursing homes and similar facilities in the United States.
“The other way that he would deliver these messages is through these huge rallies, and he can’t do the big rallies right now,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic ad strategist. “It is an online version of what we would be hearing if he could be having rallies. He made fun of people from the podium at the rallies.”
But the ads targeting Mr. Biden’s age could be informed by a recent CNN poll that found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden on the question of “stamina and sharpness” by three percentage points.
The Facebook ads trend toward the meme-like, shareable graphics that dominate social media, with pictures of a dazed-looking Mr. Biden set against a backdrop of question marks.
The ads focusing on Mr. Biden’s age are running only on Facebook, and are running largely in eight battleground states, according to data from the platform: Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. The Trump campaign has spent $660,000 on Facebook ads over the past week.
The campaign also has ads on Facebook attacking Mr. Biden for his past statements on China. Others criticize him for proposing policies to help undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Trump weeks ago had vetoed ads that his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had put together attacking Mr. Biden and connecting him to China. One adviser to Mr. Trump said that Mr. Trump did not want to attack Mr. Biden that hard early on, fearing he would knock him out of the race. (National Democrats are not budging on Mr. Biden as their presumptive nominee, but some advisers have claimed to Mr. Trump that he could potentially upend the contest.)
Another adviser, however, said that Mr. Trump simply didn’t like the visuals in the ads. Those visuals included footage from Mr. Biden when he was younger.