New polls released in the past week suggest that Donald Trump is heading to a decisive victory this week in New York, followed by further big wins in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and California. After months of warnings from their own party leaders, about the singular unfitness of this one man for office, roughly half of likely Republican primary voters in those states still plan to choose him as presidential nominee.

Those anti-Trump forces within the GOP and the broader conservative movement are trying, however belatedly, to sway the rank-and-file through attack ads. More and more different groups are hurling attack ads at viewers, hoping that something will work.

So far, not much has.

The anti-Trump ad blitz has been largely invisible to Bostonians. It started, in earnest, after the March 1 Massachusetts primary—the Super Tuesday romp that fully revealed the strength of his support—and has followed the primary schedule state-to-state since then.

They didn’t seem to do much good. Trump has been slowed down since then, but mostly by losing to Sen. Ted Cruz in smaller caucus contests, where mass media advertising has mattered less than on-the-ground organizing.

There was, however, one exception. Cruz won the Wisconsin primary on April 5, after a particularly concentrated onslaught of ads against Trump.

Those polls in upcoming states suggest that the Wisconsin win might have had less to do with the ads, and more to do with other factors unique to that state—including the support for Cruz from Gov. Scott Walker.

The truth is, it’s harder than ever to change voter attitudes through advertising, especially this late in the process.
But it might also be that the groups attacking him from the right just aren’t packing enough of a wallop with their message.

Considering that they are essentially warning that a Trump nomination would be a potential death blow to the Republican Party—and that a Trump presidency could be an unthinkable nightmare—the attacks come across as frankly rather prosaic. They hardly stand out from the usual fare of candidate-on-candidate violence that pervades the airwaves at every election.
The attack ads are coming from several different directions—helpfully compiled by Political TV Ad Archive.

First are his opponents’ campaign committees—those of Cruz and Gov. John Kasich. Those ads have been frequent, but not hard-hitting. Cruz slips in a dig at Trump in the middle of a folksy ad about his own upbringing; Kasich has stuck mostly positive in his own ads.

These ads aren’t doing much to hurt Trump. But that’s in part because they’re leaving that job to a second group: their supporting Super PACs.

The pro-Cruz Trusted Leadership PAC has a brand-new ad that mocks Trump for whining about caucus rules. That’s a pretty process-oriented, inside-baseball complaint. New Day for America, the pro-Kasich Super PAC, has been hitting both Trump and Cruz in its ads as equally nutty—as compared, in its latest ad, to the “stable” Kasich.

Those groups, like the Super PACs of Sen. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and other Republican candidates of this cycle, have not seemed to find a formula to land a consistent, effective punch on Trump in ads—a message that conveys why they consider him uniquely unfit for the nomination.

There has been slightly more success from a third group: committees that have cropped up specifically to hurl attack ads at the front-runner.

The first major one, satirically named Make America Awesome, has mostly tried to paint Trump as a phony, with failed businesses. But it also tried a values argument to turn Mormon voters off of Trump in Utah, with a direct mail piece showing that Trump’s wife has posed nude.

Most of Make America Awesome’s ads have had limited air time, and exist more for web distribution. A later but better-funded effort is Our Principles PAC, started by former Romney campaign staffer Katie Packer. It has spent at least $15 million advertising against Trump—most heavily on an attention-getting ad depicting Trump as sexist. In other ads, it has attacked Trump for being too liberal, using current or past statements in support of abortion rights, single-payer health care, gun control, and eminent domain law. In still others it has seemed to jump on the headline of the week: allegations against Trump university in one, alleged Trump-inspired violence in another.

It’s hard to tell, from all of this hodgepodge of attacks, what exactly the core argument is that led these groups to form in opposition to Trump. Instead of a coherent case, they are trying any attack they think might work, with none of it reinforcing any central theme.

Somewhat more disciplined, but lacking urgency, are ads from another set of groups: existing conservative groups, taking sides to try to stop Trump from getting the Republican nomination.

Club For Growth, the low-tax advocacy group, has spent millions, including a big push in Wisconsin. Their ads have mostly focused on pure politics: arguing that a Trump nomination would usher in President Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Senate in one case; in another, warning that only Cruz can stop Trump from the nomination, so a vote for Kasich would only help Trump.

Another in this category is American Future Fund, backed by the infamous Koch brothers. Its ad intones, “but does a man of the people rip off 5,000 with a fake college?” It goes on to accuse Trump of trying to use eminent domain law against an elderly woman (a popular item in anti-Trump ads), and of hypocrisy on illegal immigrants. Trump, the ad concludes, “will always put himself ahead of us.”

Never mind the hypocrisy of this message about “us” common people, coming from a group funded by million-dollar checks from wealthy businessmen. They are nevertheless pretty good ads, that seek to take Trump down a peg from his self-created image—but again, hardly paint him as an imminent danger to the republic.

None of these ads dare attack Trump’s stated policies as dangerous, his approach as fascistic, or his rhetoric as racist—charges that would stand out from the usual Republican-on-Republican ad violence.

There is a final group making anti-Trump attack ads, though, that is happy to go there. And by doing so, those groups are probably helping Trump more than all of the above are hurting him.
That would be the ads being aired in upcoming primary states by Democrats.

Those ads, gleefully using Trump as a punching bag in Democratic primaries, are almost certainly improving Trump’s standing with Republicans who see them.

Tale, for example, a new ad from the pro-Clinton Priorities USA PAC. It goes to great lengths to paint Trump and Cruz as equally extreme in their opposition to legal abortion. That runs directly contrary to the anti-Trump ads from the right, that try to convince conservatives that Trump is too liberal on that very issue.

Another ad, being aired by Clinton’s own campaign committee, hits Trump for his harsh rhetoric and positions on abortion, immigration, and Muslims; it then shifts to Clinton bad-mouthing Trump.

All of this, while cotton candy to liberals, is simultaneously giving credibility to Trump among Republicans—for whom any enemy of Clinton’s can’t be all bad.

Not only does the ad vouch for Trump’s conservative bona fides, it also backs up his dubious claims to be the candidate Democrats fear to face. “With so much at stake,” Clinton’s ad concludes, “she’s the one tough enough to stop Trump.”

Another Clinton ad, entirely in Spanish and mostly positive, sticks in a grainy Trump image with the terms “criminales” and “violadores” over it—which, again, is likely to help Trump among conservatives when they see him singled out for abuse en Español.

Anti-Trump messaging is even creeping into Democratic ads in down-ballot primaries, taking place in some states on the same day as the presidential vote. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has a new ad for Kate McGinty, its favored candidate in the Senate primary. At one point, the ad shows the face of Trump side-by-side with incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. Again, what’s good for the Democrat might at the same time be free promotion for Trump.

I can’t say whether Clinton and the others are deliberately trying to help Trump with these attacks. But that’s likely their effect. And those ads are likely to continue, in primary states, right up through the final nomination contests on June 7.