Obama's $750 Million Juggernaut
The two Davids—Axlerod and Plouffe—are marketing geniuses. They propelled Barack Obama to the presidency by running textbook campaigns in the primaries and general election.
In the course of their work, they raised three-quarters of a billion dollars, upended the entire business of political fundraising and scotched forever the Holy American Empire’s concept of taxpayer-funded elections.
How’d they do it?
I have in my archive 187 e-mails from the Obama campaign to me (from 3/5/08 – 12/9/08) and 207 messages from the Hillary Clinton press office to me (from 3/11/08 – 5/9/08).
This is grist for a book or white paper on what Obama did right and Clinton did wrong—especially since the presumptive secretary of state is in the hole for $30 million and is whining and begging, while the president-elect is sitting on a $30 million surplus.
As readers of this e-zine know, history fascinates me. And for three and a half years, I had the enormous privilege of working for Walter Weintz, the father of direct mail political fundraising.
What follows is the story of how it all began. The pioneering work in political fundraising by Walter Weintz in the 1950s is directly applicable to the world of fundraising today—more than a half-century later—whether you use snail mail, e-mail, off-the-page advertising or the telephone.
How the National Republican Party's Winning Fund-Raising Program Was Built — By Walter H. Weintz (Former circulation director, Reader’s Digest)
From “The Solid Gold Mailbox” by Walter Weintz (John Wiley & Sons, 1987). Reprinted by permission of Todd Weintz.
Once the basic principles and techniques of mail-order promotion are understood, they can be applied in the most unlikely places, and for unexpected products. Although my own initial mail-order experience happened to do with magazines and books, the same rules would have applied had I been working on a correspondence course in accounting, the mail-order sale of Christmas hams or Chesapeake crabmeat, securing leads for Ford cars, or, indeed, getting political candidates elected or fund raising for a political organization like the Republican National Committee.
As it happens, I discovered through personal experience how effectively mail-order procedures can be applied to politics. So, in this chapter I'll go through the story of the development of the National Republican Party's elective and fund raising program, which I helped develop and execute. I believe that the procedures we set up for the Republicans can be applied to any good mail-order product.
To the best of my knowledge, the Republicans started using direct mail on a scientific, mass basis back in 1950. At that time, Sen. Robert Taft [R-Ohio] was running in a desperate race for re-election.
The big unions had announced that they had earmarked a war chest of several million dollars for a campaign in Ohio to defeat Taft, because he was coauthor of the Taft-Hartley Act, which gives the Federal Government the power to halt strikes that hurt the interests of the nation. At the time, the Taft-Hartley Act was a tremendous political issue. The big unions considered the Act an outright attempt to kill unionism in America, and Robert Taft their mortal enemy. They believed they had to get rid of him!
In those days, Reader's Digest had well-established conservative leanings, and the Digest had published articles on certain conservative issues by Sen. Taft. Sen. Taft was a friend of DeWitt Wallace [Digest founder and owner] and Al Cole [Digest business manager].
So the Digest volunteered my services to do a direct mail campaign to help get Sen. Taft re-elected.
Sen. Taft was convinced that he should take his stand on the Taft-Hartley Law, and, of course, we tried to talk him out of that, because we knew that blue-collar workers would be against him on the basis of the Taft-Hartley Act.
But Sen. Taft argued that the big issue of his campaign was, obviously, the Taft-Hartley Act—and therefore he had to stand or fall on the merits of that Act. So we had to do a mailing, he said, built around the benefits of the Act for the ordinary working man.
Fortunately, in direct mail you are able to test almost anything, including political appeals. We mailed out, as I recall, several different letters, each one putting forward a different central idea on why the recipient of the letter should support Sen. Taft.
Keying: an Essential Element
We needed some way to measure the effect of our different appeals, so in each mailing we included a "contribution card," keyed to the letter it went with. That is, we put an inconspicuous letter of the alphabet in a corner of each card: A, B, C, and so on-depending upon which letter the card originally went out with. In each case we said, "Send us some money to help re-elect Sen. Taft." When contributions came in—each with a keyed card—we were able to count returns from each letter and tell which pulled the best.
We sent out about 20,000 copies of each letter. I was astounded when the letter (written by Sen. Taft), which was built around a positive presentation of the Taft-Hartley Act, was far and away the most successful.
We subsequently mailed hundreds of thousands of Taft-Hartley letters into the blue-collar worker sections of the industrial cities of Ohio: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, and so on. The blue-collar workers responded by voting overwhelmingly for Taft against the urging, advice, and $3 million campaign fund of their union leaders.
In addition, much to our surprise, we received a substantial number of small contributions, which helped us finance the direct mail campaign. Indeed, the campaign paid for itself!
Subsequently, in 1952, when Taft and Eisenhower were rivals for the Presidential nomination, I was a Taft partisan because of my previous experience working for Sen. Taft. I was very disappointed when Eisenhower got the nomination.
A few days later, Mr. Cole called me into his office and said, "How would you like to take a leave of absence and run the direct mail campaign for Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon?"
"I wouldn't like that," I said.
"Good, I knew you would," Mr. Cole answered. "I told them you'd be down there this afternoon."
So in 1952 I went to work for the Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon, and I might add, I quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of Gen. Eisenhower.
We decided that the experience we had had on the Taft campaign gave us a beautiful model for doing direct mail on behalf of Eisenhower and Nixon.
At the start of Eisenhower's campaign, he didn't have a clear-cut political theme, and he was burdened with all kinds of conflicting advice from well-meaning, self-appointed experts.
The politicians who surrounded him implored him not to say anything, it being their philosophy that campaigns are won by not taking a stand on anything. They suggested his theme should simply be, "It's time for a change."
Others were incensed over the "deep freeze" and "fur coat" scandals, which had plagued the Truman Administration. In the latter days of President Truman's Administration, various accusations about political graft involving some prominent Democrats had surfaced, and our Republican political advisors suggested that a simple, dignified phrase like, "Throw the rascals out" would make a good mail-order theme that would hit home.
And, of course, the war in Korea was much on everybody's mind.
Al Cole asked me to write 10 letters, each based on a different campaign appeal.
With these letters, we reasoned, we could test different campaign appeals and find out exactly what issues really did arouse the voters. Were they really upset over corruption in Washington? Was it inflation and the high cost of living that troubled them most, or government regulation (a favorite Republican issue, even in those days)? We would ask for money, just as we had in the Taft campaign, to check the relative effectiveness of various appeals. We would then mail millions of letters, using the most successful appeals, and the mailing would be at least partially self-financing, because it would pull for contributions.
The letters, besides making money, would reach millions of people, with strong arguments in favor of Eisenhower and Nixon. Most importantly, we would then have hundreds of thousands of small contributors who had "bet on a horse"—given small sums ranging from a dollar up to $25 or so to support Eisenhower's campaign.
We reasoned that anyone who contributed money for a candidate would be much more likely to go out and vote for that candidate on Election Day.
We sent out an initial test of 10,000 of each of 10 letters, and in each case we said, "If you would like to see Eisenhower elected President, please send back the enclosed contribution card, together with your contribution and your name and address."
The cards were keyed, so we were able to count results.
The letter—which concentrated on foreign policy—would seem, on the face of it, to relate less directly to the voters' strong personal interests and problems than did some of the other letters. They concentrated on high taxes, inflation, big government interfering with the little voter's rights and privileges, and government waste dipping into the voter's pocketbook. In reviewing the 10 letters we put out, I did not particularly expect [the foreign policy] letter to be the big winner. But that's what testing is all about; it replaces guesses with facts!
The Surprising Winner
Nine out of the 10 letters pulled almost exactly the same. The tenth letter, "Coddling the Russians," which talked about Korea, and the seemingly never-ending war in which America had gotten embroiled, pulled about 2-1/2 times as well as any of the other letters.
It was a striking, clear-cut proof that the war in Korea outweighed every other political appeal Eisenhower could make.
The results were so conclusive that we put together a report, and Walter Williams, Chairman of the Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon Committee, got on a plane and hurried out west, where Eisenhower was campaigning, and showed him these results. A few days later, Eisenhower made his famous "I shall go to Korea" speech, and suddenly his campaign was off and running.
I can't say that it was the direct mail results alone which convinced Eisenhower that Korea was the important issue, but Walter Williams told me that it was decisive in helping Eisenhower make up his mind. Certainly, the tests proved overwhelmingly that the war in Korea was the most important issue in the public's mind.
Sidney Weinberg was the financial manager of the Citizens for the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign, and when I told him that a big mailing would pull the same percentage of returns as did the original test, he was full of suspicion. Sidney was a Vice President and partner of Goldman Sachs, and he was accustomed to financial projections that were based on 100-page business analyses—not a skimpy page of mailing test results. The whole thing smelled like Madison Avenue flim-flam to Sidney. Very reluctantly, he gave his permission to roll out with a huge, major mailing, but Sidney was prepared for the worst.
Fortunately, the big mailing pulled exactly as the test mailing projected that it would.
We mailed out some 10 million letters based on the Korean issue. And the interesting thing is that, in addition to getting 10 million messages out to voters, we were able to get some 300,000 voters to send us a contribution. These were 300,000 votes that we could pretty well count on.
The contributions were small. They averaged only $5.00 or so. But the $1.5 million that they represented easily paid the cost of our 10 million campaign. Thus, we had harnessed a powerful self-financing force.
And equally important, we had that most precious of all mail order and political properties—a list of Eisenhower supporters—people who had voted for Eisenhower with their pocketbooks. We had their names and addresses. We could go back to them again for future contributions, for campaign activities, for vote-getting and voting.
As it turned out, the mailing not only paid for itself, but brought in thousands of dollars over its actual cost. Sidney Weinberg then declared that this raised a moral issue. We had asked for contributions to help elect Eisenhower. Now he was elected, and we had money left over. Therefore we were obligated to refund the excess contributions.
For some time after the election, therefore, Sidney's staff was busy figuring out a pro rata refund on every contribution, and making out thousands of refund checks which were sent to our innumerable small contributors. Everyone got a refund, even if it was a check for only 69 cents!
The 1956 and 1960 Campaigns
This isn't the end of the story, however. Years later, when I came back to working for the Republican Party after a considerable absence, the Party was still getting contributions from those original 1952 contributors! And this was a "secret weapon" which the Republicans had in subsequent elections that the Democrats didn't possess.
The names of our 1952 Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon contributors were put in a "bank" for future use. In 1956, when Eisenhower and Nixon ran again, we wrote to these same people and asked for additional contributions, and they gave generously.
The contributions were small, and the contributors were certainly not "fat cats." On the contrary, they reminded me of the slogan that is posted in the children's zoo in the Bronx, over the guinea pig colony, "We are small, but we are many."
Together, these small contributors represented a very important part of the Republican fund raising in 1956.
Again in 1960, Spencer Olin, who was then the Finance Chairman of the Republican Party, turned to direct mail to solve his party's financial problems. In the spring of 1960, the party was almost literally broke.
Mr. Olin asked me to "put out a letter and raise a million dollars." We mailed approximately one million letters, and we cleared the million dollars that Mr. Olin asked for. We were able to do this because we had amassed a list of dependable contributors to whom we could turn in our hour of need, and because we were able to make an emotional appeal on a very personal basis, which offered the reader an opportunity to do something nice and be somebody important!
Unfortunately, Spence Olin's tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee presently came to an end, and he was replaced by a new "expert."
This man came from the old "fat cat" school of fund raisers. His first act on assuming office was to call his staff together and deliver a challenge.
"The only way to raise money is eyeball-to-eyeball solicitations of large sums from big donors," he announced. "Direct mail is wasteful and expensive and only brings in piddling little contributions that are not worth fooling with. If anybody here thinks I'm wrong and he's right, speak up. No takers? OK—from here on, no more direct mail."
And that, for the time being, terminated my active relationship as a fund-raiser with the Republican Party.
Walter Weintz spent World War II as a junior officer aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific. He began his career as a copywriter, working on accounts like Book-of-the-Month Club, Charles Atlas, and Doubleday. As Circulation Director for Reader's Digest, he created some of the most successful promotions ever mailed, including one which mailed over a hundred million pennies as an attention getter. He formed the Weintz Corporation in 1958 and served clients like the Boys' Clubs of America, Rodale Press, Harvard Business Review, Time Inc., the Republican National Committee, American Express, the New York Times Magazine Division, World Book Encyclopedia, Prudential Insurance and many others. Walter Weintz was active in both local and national direct-mail industry affairs over almost half a century. He died in 1996 at the age of 81.