From the basement to the third floor of Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, dozens of election campaign workers are glued to screens playing back videos of Donald Trump and other Republicans, digitally documenting their policy positions on everything from torture to climate change.
The newly bulked up operation, including research, of more than 70 people is central to the Democrats’ strategy to sink whoever the Republicans nominate to run for the White House in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.
Party officials who provided Reuters with details of the operation increasingly think their target will be Trump, the New York businessman and former reality TV star who is the surprise Republican front-runner.
The video clips will be used as grist for attack ads that will be deployed rapidly on social media sites any time Trump, or either of his rivals, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich, strays during the general election campaign from policy proposals they touted in the nominating contests across the country.
That could, in theory, hinder them from appealing to the millions of more moderate voters needed to beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the two competitors for the Democratic nomination.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) spokesman Luis Miranda, who provided Reuters with a partial tour of the research operation, said voters in the run-up to November’s election were “not going to be as responsive to the divisive rhetoric” that Trump used in the Republican campaign and that was a “key part of our general election strategy.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the Democratic Party operation.
Trump leads Cruz with 678 delegates to the Texan’s 423 delegates and Kasich at 143 as of this week after a string of wins in states where his supporters favored his flamboyant rhetoric and plans to wall off the U.S. border with Mexico, deport millions of undocumented immigrants and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. Trump has also called for a revision of laws that ban torture, and wants to scrap trade deals he blames for job losses.
There are two more Republican nominating contests on Tuesday. A candidate needs to accumulate at least 1,237 delegates to win the nomination at the Republican convention in July.
News and video monitoring have been election staples for years, but the latest operations bear little resemblance to the lower-tech past because of leaps in technology and the speed with which a candidate’s remarks are distributed.
“Everything is on steroids,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant, who recalled campaigns continuously taping news channels on VHS tapes – a tedious process that limited how much could be monitored.
Other new technology, such as the live streaming application Periscope, makes news from around the world available almost instantly, said Holly Shulman, a Democratic strategist and former DNC official.
“Halfway around the world we were able to respond to something before the reporters looked at it even,” she said.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) said it has also ramped up its video monitoring efforts, with a focus on Clinton, adding staff and using newer technology.
Eight people on the RNC staff are devoted to monitoring news coverage, and the party said it was building a searchable digital library of Clinton speeches, interviews and other events going back to 1991, the year before her husband Bill Clinton won the presidential election.
Attacks on Trump by Republican rivals and Super PACs, independent political action committees that may raise unlimited sums of money, have failed to stop his campaign’s momentum.
But the DNC said it believes its strategy will be effective. For one, the Democrats believe the Republican establishment’s efforts to block Trump’s nomination have been slow and disorganized – and hampered by a fear of tearing the party apart. The Democratic Party is also betting the general electorate will be more easily persuaded to counter Trump than registered Republicans have been.
Clinton has a nearly 10-point lead over Trump in a hypothetical general election match up, according to an average of polls gathered by Real Clear Politics.
Reality TV tips
The effort to hobble the former reality TV star takes a page out of reality television itself, where producers comb through thousands of hours of candid video, index it into an easily searchable library, and then paste together coherent narratives.
The project helps address recommendations from the Democratic Victory Task Force, commissioned by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which in February 2015 suggested the party prepare for the 2016 election and promote the party’s messaging.
The DNC did similar work during the 2012 presidential election, but on a much smaller scale. Its digital and social media staff went from 5 to 25 people over the past 18 or so months, spokesman Miranda said.
The current team divides its time on video from a wide range of sources – from national news to local channels, clips put up on YouTube by individual users and campaigns, and events webcast by the campaigns themselves.
It also has scouts that record in the field.
The work has yielded a number of attack videos already, many prepared and sent out at a moment’s notice.
On Feb. 28, for example, the party released a video slamming Republican presidential hopefuls for their opposition to action on climate change, featuring them denying man-made global warming alongside images of U.S. flooding, wildfires, droughts and heat waves.
Earlier in March, after Trump cruised to victory in several state nominating contests, the DNC put out another 40-second video, mixing news clips talking about how Trump is dominating his party.
“These videos are getting tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views across our various platforms,” Miranda said. “He’s not going to get off as easy with us as with the rest of the Republican field. We know what he’s said, we know where he’s flip-flopped, where he’s made mistakes.”
(Reporting by Luciana Lopez; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Grant McCool)