But the collective voice of former cabinet officials and top aides to Republican presidents denouncing their party’s nominee did little to move the needle with regular Republican voters across the country, who were not swayed by opposition from the establishment.
The new group is set to begin a $10 million digital and television advertising campaign that will use personal stories of conservative voters giving voice to their deep — and sometimes brand-new — dissatisfaction with the president.
The group will test the premise of whether there are really any persuadable voters left in a deeply tribal moment in American politics, in which views of Mr. Trump, both positive and negative, have only been hardened over the past four years.
“What was missing in 2016 was a real concerted effort to take the voices of real people who have deep reservations about Trump, but who identify as Republicans, and allow them to be the messengers,” said Sarah Longwell, a lifelong conservative and a prominent Never Trump Republican.
The new initiative is the brainchild of Ms. Longwell; Bill Kristol, the conservative writer; and Tim Miller, a former top aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Together, Ms. Longwell and Mr. Kristol have also worked on an initiative called Republicans for the Rule of Law, which has begun its own ad blitz against Mr. Trump.
After almost three years of conducting focus groups and intensive research on messages that would work with persuadable voters, the founders have created a cache of 100 testimonial videos, most shot on smartphones, with voters explaining why they are making the sometimes painful choice to break with their political party.
Some of the videos are hardly rousing endorsements for Mr. Biden. In one testimonial, Wayne from Dallas says to the camera, “I could not bring myself to vote for Hillary, so I voted for President Trump.” But he said he believed the president had “gotten worse” and that “everything he’s done has been to enrich himself.” With a note of resignation, he says: “I will not be voting for him here in 2020. I suppose I’ll be voting for Biden.”
Sitting on his couch in Brooklyn, Dan Eckman, a self-described lifelong conservative, says of Mr. Biden: “This guy has one term written all over him. Let him win. We’ll have four years to rebuild the base, re-educate the party, bleach out the Trump cult stain and then come back.” He adds, “I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump with a gun to my head and neither should you.”
Some of the testimonials, like one from Gary, a lifelong Republican from Florida, describe Mr. Biden as “not a perfect candidate” but a “decent man.”
Ms. Longwell said the expression of lukewarm feelings about Mr. Biden made for a more authentic pitch for a Republican audience than a rousing endorsement.
“People who have been Republicans their entire lives aren’t super excited about voting for a Democrat,” she said. “The way they talk about it is more in sorrow than enthusiasm.”
But she said a Biden candidacy, and the lack of a well-known third-party candidate where voters can park their ballots, had created a bigger opportunity to persuade Republican voters to switch parties than there was in 2016.
“You can’t overstate what the Clintons represent for Republicans,” Ms. Longwell said. “Donald Trump’s corruption was offset by what they saw as her corruption.”
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, dismissed the effort in a one-word email: “irrelevant.”
Kevin Madden, a former top adviser to Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, said the universe of Republican voters who might be opposed to Mr. Trump — who consistently has approval ratings in the high 80s or better from his own party — was too small to make a difference.
“Given the razor-thin margins in several key battleground states in 2016, it’s easy to convince yourself that Republican nose-holders will make or break 2020,” Mr. Madden said. “But they are a smaller universe of voters when compared to Democrats over 60 who voted for Trump in 2016. Same with women voters with high school degrees who previously supported Obama but voted for Trump in 2016. Political operatives getting together to run a few ads targeted at that smaller sliver of voters won’t have much of an impact.”
The ad campaign, set to blitz the swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona through the summer, is primarily aimed at college-educated white voters in suburbs.
Ms. Longwell said her focus groups had shown that there were still persuadable voters out there.
“I was surprised by how many people had just decided because of the coronavirus response,” Ms. Longwell said. “They for the first time started watching the press conferences.”