Super PACs turn to Western Pa. voters for testimonials in presidential contest

TribLIVE’s Daily and Weekly email newsletters deliver the news you want and information you need, right to your inbox. On the surface, Janie and Shawn share little beyond their small-town Western Pennsylvania roots. But now, they are sharing 15 minutes of fame, thanks to their testimonials in ads supporting Joe […]

On the surface, Janie and Shawn share little beyond their small-town Western Pennsylvania roots.

But now, they are sharing 15 minutes of fame, thanks to their testimonials in ads supporting Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Identified only as 82-year-old Janie from Westmoreland, the tiny, blue-eyed woman who sports a halo of white hair and a ready smile could be the grandmother from central casting. She appeared in two ads for American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, in which she talks about her disappointment with the president she voted for in 2016.

Shawn, a burly man with a deep, booming voice identified only as a union member and a Democrat, stars in an ad for America First Action, a Republican super PAC, in which he stares into the camera and says, “Joe Biden’s ban on fracking would put me and everyone I know out of work.”

Although the Biden campaign says the ad misstated his position, it has run repeatedly on local TV.

The ad — and another one featuring a young gas industry worker awaiting the birth of his first baby, who worries that his job could be on the line if Democrats have their way — is part of a $23 million advertising campaign the PAC is sponsoring across Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states that Trump narrowly won in 2016. The ad campaign will run through Labor Day.

Both ads have appeared on broadcast TV and are available on social media. They carry disclaimers noting the speakers are not paid actors.

Experts say voters can expect to hear more personal testimonial ads as presidential campaigns shaped and constrained by a global pandemic move forward over the next two months.

Super PACs, issues-oriented political action committees, are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash. Experts estimate such groups will spend billions of dollars on advertising aimed at swaying the November elections.

Columbia University political scientist Donald P. Green, who studies political ads, said public health constraints that limit door-to-door campaigns and large rallies, coupled with the fact the candidates are known quantities, make testimonials attractive.

“I think testimonials would be a popular genre. In part, it’s because, when you think about the candidates who are being fielded, both of them have been around for a long, long time and there’s not much new to say about them. In some ways, these testimonials are about reframing them. But there’s very little evidence that these ads change minds,” he said.

Green said groups that use testimonials have grown more sophisticated about vetting “regular people.” That may have been prompted in part by news accounts last year that revealed an array of Facebook testimonials for Trump’s re-election campaign actually used stock footage of actors. The ads featured small print noting “actual testimonial, actor portrayal.”

“You have your hired guns,” Green said. “But, I suspect that the big-money advertising campaigns find real people.”

American Bridge PAC and America First Action have spent tens of millions of dollars on such ad campaigns in Pennsylvania.

Spokesmen for America First Action did not respond to repeated inquiries about how the group vets its testimonial participants.

But Kyle Morse, deputy director of the Trump War Room at American Bridge PAC, said vetting real voters who will come across as authentic is a challenge in an era when person-to-person outreach has been constrained.

And there is the question of confidentiality. Morse said voters who agree to appear in ads are guaranteed they will not be identified. While friends and neighbors undoubtedly make the connection, Morse said the organization wants to shield testimonial participants from harassment.

When the Tribune-Review tracked down Janie, a registered independent voter, she agreed to talk about the experience. She said she was contacted after answering a voter poll. She said she felt confident about doing the testimonial after talking with representatives of American Bridge PAC.

Although they filmed Janie inside her home, they went so far as to drive her to Ligonier to film her outside another house to further shield her identity.

Her only condition was “that they didn’t make me appear mean.”

“This election has divided families. I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “I’ve voted for every president going back to Eisenhower. I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats.

“I thought Donald Trump would change things. But I’m disappointed. He said he’d drain the swamp. Instead, he gave us quicksand.”

Janie said her teenage grandson is concerned about the tenor of the election and worries the Biden sign in her yard might be inviting harassment.

On the other hand, a neighbor who recognized her in the ad knocked on her door with his mother when he came home from college. He asked to have his picture taken with her.

“He was active with the college Democrats,” Janie said, smiling at the thought.

Although Shawn wasn’t identified in the fracking ad, he has no trouble with anyone knowing his identity. He readily identified himself as the man in the ad at a labor rally in Springdale last week.

A business agent with Boiler­makers Local 154, Shawn Steffee, 53, of Homer City said he has spoken out for union issues and lobbied lawmakers in Harrisburg. Moreover, he’s a Democrat — and part of a voting bloc that traditionally has backed Democrats but has become a swing sector for the GOP in recent years.

He speculated his efforts in Harrisburg brought him to the attention of America First.

“Someone asked me if I wanted to do (the ad), and I said sure,” he said.

Steffee, whose union services power plants, refineries and steel mills among other installations, said he feels as though Democrats have abandoned workers in basic industries that rely upon fossil fuels and moved too far to the left.

“I’m very disappointed in my party. … Yes, I am supporting Donald Trump. If you don’t support our agenda, we don’t support you,” he said.

Ads featuring people like Janie and Shawn are clutter cutters, said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant.

“Generally, they’re good. People are so used to political ads with a professional voice-over, when these come on there’s a different tone and literally a different voice,” Nicholas said. “Whether you agree with them or not, they come across as real. All of these ads, if you have a person talking about their own lives, in their own voices, people pay attention.”

They may just have been the impetus for the latest generation of testimonials — user-­generated ads.

Nicholas said an anti-Trump group, Republican Voters Against Trump or RVAT, has seized upon the growing comfort level many people have gained with programs like Zoom to encourage the public to submit personally filmed testimonials.

Their website includes scores of carefully selected testimonials from hundreds submitted. The videos show individuals identified by state looking into a computer camera and explaining why they won’t be voting for Trump on Nov. 3 and, in some instances, apologizing for voting for him in 2016.

Although Trump’s Twitter feed, often a source of controversy, doesn’t include any comments on RVAT, he’s fired back more than once against groups like The Lincoln Project, founded last year by Republicans that have rejected him. Trumps has tweeted that they are “losers” and “human scum.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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