Biden, Trump scale back campaigns as coronavirus spreads – but super PACs are going to war

Key Points
  • As candidates for president have their campaigns go virtual, super PACs are investing millions of dollars into ads that could become key messaging platforms while voters are stuck at home. 
  • The efforts by these PACs could be a particular help to Joe Biden, who is trying to remain in the national spotlight. 
  • Some of the top donors to the vying PACs this cycle include financier Donald Sussman, real estate executive George Marcus, venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. 
Vice President Joe Biden holds a virtual campaign event on March 13, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

While presidential candidates take their campaigns into the virtual realm and avoid buying television ads amid the coronavirus pandemic, super PACs are giving them a boost.

Three super PACs supporting Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and one backing President Donald Trump have committed several million dollars to ads that will appear online and air on TV throughout the 2020 campaign to help the candidates make up for missing out on rallies.

Biden, Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have called off in-person events to help prevent further spreading of the coronavirus.

Super PACs could potentially expand their messaging power in unprecedented ways while voters are stuck at home, according to political strategists. This could help Biden in particular. The former vice president has largely been on the sidelines as Trump and other political leaders, such as Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, take on the coronavirus crisis. 

"The theory is likely that voters who get their news from TV and are stuck at home will be able to engage," longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told CNBC. "No TV, no campaign. No campaign, Biden disappears," he added. 

Guy Cecil, chairman of Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said the group's goal is not to take on the pro-Trump America First Action, but to provide a counterweight to Trump while he regularly holds nationally televised White House briefings on the coronavirus. 

"We thought it was critical to provide some sort of balance of what the president is treating as some sort of new version of a campaign rally," said Cecil, who noted that he believes Trump's comments during his briefings are often equivalent to "propaganda."

He said Priorities USA is looking to raise close to $200 million by the end of the 2020 election cycle. 

Beyond the ads, Cecil said the group is investing an additional $2 million into litigation aimed at finding solutions to the possible impediments that lie ahead for voters if the virus does not subside in the coming months.

"We have to make sure we have expanded vote by mail, that we have safeguards in place in that regard, and to make sure we have extensive in-person voting, which may mean more precincts to eliminate how many people stand in line," he said. With their partners, the group will decide in the coming weeks which states to focus on.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the United States needs to move toward voting by mail as the coronavirus continues to spread. Trump has pushed back on the notion. 

Super PACs have the ability to spend and raise an unlimited amount of money, giving them an immense amount of resources to invest into advertising campaigns. 

Super PACs have received contributions up to seven figures in some cases, which would never be able to go directly to a candidate's campaign due to Federal Election Commission laws. Some of the top donors to the major PACs this cycle include financier Donald Sussman, real estate executive George Marcus, venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Sanders, who is still in the Democratic primary for president despite being behind Biden in the delegate count, has shunned super PACs for years. There are no outside groups currently airing TV ads in support of him.

Biden, on the other hand, has been receptive to the help of super PACs and has had one advocating for him since late last year, while two others jumped into his camp in the wake of decisive victories on Super Tuesday. 

The first super PAC to back him, Unite the Country, has spent just under $7 million on a variety of ad buys, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. A chunk of those ads have been blasting Trump for his handling of the coronavirus, including one titled "Pandemic" that highlights how the economy has taken a downturn while the virus sweeps across the country and suggests the administration wasn't prepared to take it on. 

Biden is also seeing help from Priorities USA, the Democratic Party's biggest outside group. It announced on Wednesday it will be expanding its original $6.6 million TV and digital ad investments on Trump's response to the coronavirus after its rival, America First Action, announced that it would be jumping in to defend the president with a $10 million buy. 

Priorities USA said it will be spending at least another $1 million and extending ad time by a week in key swing states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Many of their ads backing Biden contrast how he would handle leading the country in a pandemic to Trump's response. 

America First, meanwhile, is going to be putting up ads in many of the same states that Priorities is targeting. Starting in mid-April, the PAC said, it will be airing ads on TV and digital, along with sending out mailers, to voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal Democratic super PAC founded by political operative David Brock, launched a $50 million effort early last year that targeted voters in Midwest states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

American Bridge recently published an ad that argues Trump is hurting the state of Michigan by how he's dealt with the coronavirus. 

The PAC has been making adjustments in the wake of the coronavirus, Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge, told CNBC in a later interview. The committee is preparing to launch an online video portal where voters can record their stories of the impact they're seeing from the coronavirus and those takes could be used in future digital and TV ads. 

"We'll be driving folks to that site through text and email, and gathering stories in that way," Beychok said. "We have three goals with that portal. We want to find those courageous people who voted for Trump in 2016, find people who want to go to Biden and those who are being impacted by the coronavirus," he said.  American Bridge says the portal will be on a new website and will be officially launched in the coming weeks. 

After endorsing Biden following his Super Tuesday blitz, American Bridge recently combined forces with Unite the Country for a general election partnership. That alliance will lead to a nine-figure investment solely dedicated to backing Biden and defeating Trump come November. The two PACs will coordinate polling and research, content creation and a joint effort of public communications that target critical components of a winning Democratic coalition.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders debated amid the coronavirus pandemic—Here are the highlights
Biden and Sanders debated amid the coronavirus pandemic—Here are the highlights