How Obama’s Geek Leakers May Have Cost Themselves Billions

Manipulate the media? Nah. They’ll manipulate you.

In the late 1960s, I went to work for the godfather of American political fundraising. Walter Weintz (pronounced “wents”) was the circulation director of Readers Digest before he went on to start his own direct mail agency.

Not only a devoted husband and father, Walt was a hell-for-leather copywriter, amateur astronomer, yacht owner, fisherman and party animal. He never left the cap too long on a gin bottle lest the contents spoil. His clients loved him. So did I.

In 1952, Walt was ordered to take paid leave from the Digest to help get Eisenhower-Nixon elected. Using primitive data and old-fashioned direct mail testing, he revolutionized the business and philosophy of political campaigns. He not only generated votes, but—wonder of wonders—raised cash to pay for the mailings. For the first time this was cash from Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, not from rich high rollers.

When Walt left the Digest to start his own agency, his biggest account was the Republican National Committee. For years the RNC and various Republican campaign committees left their Democratic opponents in the dust because of Walt’s pioneering work in the business of vote getting and fundraising. He shared his proprietary knowledge freely with clients and staff, but never went public with it.

After 35 years, Walter Weintz Finally Revealed His Secrets
In 1987, 10 years before his death, Walt published his memoir, The Solid Gold Mailbox: How to Create Winning Mail-Order Campaigns…By the Man Who’s Done All.

In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s shocking win in the 2008 election, I contacted Walt’s son, Todd. He gave me permission to excerpt Walt’s account of his breakthrough work with Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon. The result was my December 2008 column titled “Obama’s $750 Million Juggernaut.”

If you want quick backgrounder in the genesis of direct marketing in politics, spend a few minutes with Walt. I guarantee you will find this fascinating stuff and very relevant today.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • The Stiletto

    One analysis of turnout and intensity in the 2010 vs 2012 election suggests that the systematic targeting of grassroots Republican groups by the IRS, which kept them tied up in knots for two years, could have been the determining factor in Obama’s victory. Actual people, not data. But we won’t know until the 2014 midterms and, possibly, the 2016 election.

    But to focus on the data for a moment: Where did it come from? The NSA, perhaps? One Texas woman who wanted to start a group to teach people how to be poll watchers not only went through the IRS audits, but also had several surprise inspections and audits of her business by OSHA, EPA and BATA. This suggests that the entire machinery of government was being leveraged to help Obama win re-election. So it does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that the domestic spying program would have also been used to target persuadable voters.

    Should this be the case, I wonder if these whiz kids will be able to replicate what they did for Obama using the same data that is available to every marketer rather than data that was available to the government.

  • Scott

    Add Jonathon Alter’s new book "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies" to your Kindle. It details the data science of "the cave" and was the focus of the NPR piece Will references below.

  • Donna Cusano

    Quite typical of Millenials and Gen X on a cultural basis–no discretion, no secrets, no judgment. Tweet it, Foursquare it, brag about how wonderfully important they are. (Employers, think about this before hiring. You might want to hire older people who know from ‘proprietary’ and still have ‘discretion’ in their vocabulary.) But I do like the fact that they blabbed because maybe someone at the RNC will pick up the manual!

  • What, Me Worry?

    If you read the NY Times article, you understand why the Obama coterie doesn’t mind the NSA efforts that Snowden exposed. If they wanted to know everything about you in order to influence your vote, why shouldn’t they know everything about you "just because?" While admiration is due for the technical efforts in the Cave, the mindset that it established is less worthy of admiration.

  • Richard Armstrong

    As you know, Denny, I wrote a book on this subject ("The Next Hurrah: The Communications Revolution in American Politics") in 1988. But it’s moved so fast and far since then that all I can see now is a cloud of dust! Occasionally, I get a call from a reporter who wants to know if I’ve kept up with it … my answer, "Er, no … you’d need somebody much smarter than me to keep up with this stuff."

  • Will Ezell

    (sent via e-mail to Denny, and posted per his personal request)

    Denny –

    As you already knew, I donated (same amount) to the Dems and the Repubs on purpose – to collect their e-mails, letters, postcards, etc. And I must admit – the Dems really pissed me off – sometimes hitting me 3 times / day. Enough already!

    In the past 3 weeks, the Obama campaigns have hit me twice –

    About 3 weeks ago, NPR did a great story about the Obama data team, probably following up on the NY Times article. Brilliant in-depth report.

    Then, just this morning, I caught the movie “Game Change”, a nice expose on the McCain / Palin campaign. The one thing that shocked both Phoebe and I is how much McCain’s “handlers” kept him in the dark.

    You just had someone respond to your blog about being happy the kids blabbed because perhaps the Repubs could learn from it, steal them, etc.

    As long as the Repubs keep choosing people like Palin, and there’s people in the media like Katie Couric, they don’t have a fucking chance.

    In fact all the exit data that CNN reported the day after the election told the story: The Repubs don’t have a chance in hell unless they pay attention to EVERYTHING any direct response marketer worth his or her salt does – KNOW THEIR PROSPECT – inside out, backwards, sideways, and forwards.

    Best “article” I’ve ever read of yours, and I’m sharing it with many.

    (look – I compliment you almost every week… At some point, some of your loyal and observant readers are going to suspect I’m either a stalker or you and I are secret lovers, which is why I didn’t post this)

    You kick ass!

  • Peter Rosenwald

    Another superb and incisive piece Denny. Thank you.

    As I suggested in the piece of mine you ran as a guest column lately, they ought to put some of these geeks back in the control room because the idiots now in charge who are breaking every rule fundraising rule in the book and pissing off people like Will Ezell and me (I received no less that thirty hysterical email solicitations from the Dems in the three days leading up to the "June 30th Deadline") are seemingly doing real damage to the base.

    That said, in a ‘thank you’ message received this morning from Michael Bennett of the DSCC, he wrote that; "An incredible 34,000 grassroots supporters pitched in last month."

    What are we to make of it all? Have the rules changed or are 34,000 people just a small fraction of those who might have donated had they not been bombarded with messages?

  • Aaron

    From my experience in the consulting world… secrets generally keep themselves. Even with the NY Times blueprint, unless an organization / company is willing — and able on their own — to change deeply held beliefs and habits, very little is going to change.

  • Karen Weinstein

    Your writing is always clear, concise, thorough in research and fact finding which usually results in a point well taken and well worth the read. This one’s over the top. It needed to be written. Thanks.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter

    I always look forward to Denny’s takeaways on stuff like this. I believe it’s paranoid to believe the NSA had anything to do with this data mining operation. Come on, this is the same government that runs the USPS!

    Perhaps these youngsters (ah, to be 49 again), are losing opportunities to rake in cash on their skills. But there is a type of manager type who’d rather hire the original guy than spend 5 minutes learning how to do it himself. Or herself. I think these kids will make out just fine.

    One more point if I may: isn’t it possible that they’ve leaked "most" of their secrets and methods, but not "all?"

    Okay, just one more point, since this is my first day back from vacation…how about the companies who just go all "fan boy" on these guys and hire them to be near their data wizardry and cool? I’ve seen hot shots get hired, we all have.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter

    I forgot one more thing.

    HOW ABOUT those super-UGLY looking emails Team Obama sent to Democrats like myself? I mean they were the digital equivalent of typewriter and highlighter copy from eons ago. They looked terrible, with urgent copy.

    People of the art bullpen take note: it’s the words. Really.