The first wave of long-promised negative ads from the Trump campaign began this week in caustic form, flooding Facebook pages and television screens in swing states with harsh messages that make unfounded inferences about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s mental state and paint the presumptive Democratic nominee as too friendly to the Chinese government.
In May alone, the Trump campaign has spent or reserved about $7 million on television airtime in local markets, fueling negative ads that repeat xenophobic tropes regarding the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, and unearth positive comments Mr. Biden has made about China in the past.
The negative ad offensive, backed by a budget considered significant for this stage of the campaign, represents a turning point in the general election. Though Mr. Trump often takes to his Twitter account to skewer Mr. Biden as tired and boring, his campaign’s expansive digital advertising operation has been almost exclusively focused on raising money and finding new donors online.
Last week, the Trump campaign boasted that it was about to “press fire’’ on a dormant arsenal of data-driven digital and TV ads. It plans to spend $10 million on its opening salvo against Mr. Biden, a budget first reported by Politico.
As of late last month, the campaign and the Republican National Committee had a $187 million cash advantage over Mr. Biden and the Democrats.
By pummeling Mr. Biden on China and mental fitness, the Trump campaign is trying to define him early in the general-election race, at a time when many Americans, stuck at home amid the Covid-19 crisis, are even more tuned into glowing screens big and small.
The new ads that focus on China have two lines of attack. One criticizes Mr. Biden for saying the president’s decision to restrict travel from China because of the coronavirus outbreak was “hysterical xenophobia.” But most of the ads simply highlight statements that Mr. Biden made when he was vice president, like “China is not our enemy.”
Mr. Trump, too, has at times praised China and its president, Xi Jinping, occasionally undermining attempts by aides and his campaign to portray China as a villain responsible for the virus.
The Trump campaign is suddenly moving to play catch-up after Democratic groups aligned with Mr. Biden have taken to the airwaves to attack Mr. Trump, including over his performance in responding to the coronavirus. Two groups, Priorities USA and American Bridge, have spent at least $20 million on anti-Trump ads since March 1.
Mr. Trump’s campaign has been frustrated with its own aligned super PAC, America First, for not doing more on television during this period of time.
Indeed, the last incumbent president to run for re-election, Barack Obama in 2012, benefited from an aggressive super PAC. At the time, Mr. Obama’s campaign and his allies aired constant negative ads against Mitt Romney, largely with the help of their supportive super PAC. And Mr. Obama was in a much stronger position in that race than Mr. Trump is currently.
“If this election is about Trump, he probably loses,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “Trump’s only hope is to make the election about Biden.”
The Trump and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Though the Trump campaign has never shied away from controversial messaging, the decision to directly go after Mr. Biden’s age (at 77, Mr. Biden is four years older than Mr. Trump) risks a blowback, from older voters and others. One of the ads jokingly depicts Mr. Biden in a nursing home, a framing that could draw criticism as more than 28,000 people have died from the coronavirus in nursing homes and similar facilities in the United States.
But the ads targeting Mr. Biden’s age could be informed by a recent CNN poll that found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden on the question of “stamina and sharpness” by three percentage points.
The Facebook ads trend toward the meme-like, shareable graphics that dominate social media, with pictures of a dazed-looking Mr. Biden set against a backdrop of question marks.
The ads focusing on Mr. Biden’s age are running only on Facebook, and are running largely in eight battleground states, according to data from the platform: Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. The Trump campaign has spent $660,000 on Facebook ads over the past week.
The campaign also has ads on Facebook attacking Mr. Biden for his past statements on China. Others criticize him for proposing policies to help undocumented immigrants.
Running such varied online messages, Mr. Goldstein said, was evidence that the Trump campaign was still testing out the most effective lines of attack against the former vice president.
“All of those ads that they put out — one on China, one on verbal missteps and the state of Biden — what they’re doing is testing those to see which resonate best with different sorts of people,” Mr. Goldstein said. “And then whichever ones that work best on Facebook, then, first, you’ll see more of them on Facebook. Then they’ll fire for effect onto television.”
On television, the campaign’s ads focusing on China dovetail with Mr. Trump’s strategy of assuming no responsibility for the severity of the outbreak in the United States and pinning the blame on China, while highlighting tenuous ties between Mr. Biden and China.
But the television ads also illustrate a challenge facing Mr. Trump in the general election: Even as he goes on the offensive against Mr. Biden, he will have to continually defend his response to the pandemic as well.
Mr. Trump weeks ago had vetoed ads that his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had put together attacking Mr. Biden and connecting him to China. One adviser to Mr. Trump said that Mr. Trump did not want to attack Mr. Biden that hard early on, fearing he would knock him out of the race. (National Democrats are not budging on Mr. Biden as their presumptive nominee, but some advisers have claimed to Mr. Trump that he could potentially upend the contest.)
Another adviser, however, said that Mr. Trump simply didn’t like the visuals in the ads. Those visuals included footage from Mr. Biden when he was younger.