The Secret of Winning Elections: Direct Mail
Two recent Supreme Court decisions—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission—have radically changed the American political landscape and put liberals' knickers in a twist.
• 2010: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it's okay for corporations and unions to spend whatever they care to on political candidates, parties and political action committees (PACs).
• 2014: McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission opened the cash floodgates, allowing unlimited contributions from individuals to candidates, parties and political committees.
The Net Result of Citizens United in 2012
Republican high-rollers were fleeced out $1 billion betting on Mitt Romney's candidacy.
The winner and chief fleecer: Karl Rove, who pocketed a reported $45 million in commissions for spending these gazillions of dollars. Other big winners: TV stations nationwide that aired the commercials and the Dom Pérignon Champagne people.
To Win Elections, Look to the Past
In the 2012 election, the competing billions—spent by the Democrats and Republicans—for the most part were spent on TV. Policy wonks watch cable news incessantly. The media and Washington insiders take cable news seriously. They consider themselves to be on the cutting edge of defining the issues ultimately controlling the results.
Average cable news prime time viewership in 2012:
2.071 million: Fox News
3.654 million total
The total 3.654 million viewers represented a paltry 1 percent of the U.S. population. In terms of swaying public opinion, cable news amounts to squat.
Further, TV is a lousy medium. When commercials come on, half the country is either in the bathroom or at the refrigerator.
After a lousy day of work—or brooding about being out of work—people watch TV to be entertained. Angry candidates and their surrogates trashing each other is not entertainment.
If you want to reach people directly, personally, intimately, use mail.
For starters, direct mail must be physically touched. It cannot be zapped, muted or mouse-clicked away.
Two Great Pioneers of Political Direct Mail
1. Richard Viguerie (b. 1933) has been the godfather conservative fundraising for 50 years. In his fascinating new book, TAKEOVER, Viguerie sums up the advantages of using direct mail in politics:
I received a lot of establishment media criticism back in the 1970s by those who saw political direct mail as having only one purpose—to raise money. I was regularly attacked in the national media if a mailing didn't make a profit for the client. What these critics didn't understand was that direct mail is advertising, and that it is a form of alternative media that educates voters, organizes activists to pass or defeat legislation, and identifies favorable voter and supporters—and raises money too.
However, all the criticism I was subjected to stopped in a few hours on Election Night November 1980. [Ronald Reagan soundly whupped incumbent Jimmy Carter.] I could almost hear our critics in the political community and the media saying, "Aha! That's what Viguerie and his friends have been up to."
When I started in 1961, direct mail was the second-largest form of advertising, second only to television. Today in 2014, direct mail is still the second-largest form of advertising.
2. Walter Weintz (1915-1996) Disclaimer: The Walter Weintz (pronounced wents) Agency handled my advertising when I ran book clubs for Meredith in the 1970s. I joined the agency as a copywriter and Walt was the main mentor of my career. He changed my life. I loved the guy.
In 1952, Walt was circulation director of Reader's Digest. The owner, DeWitt Wallace—a deeply committed Republican—put Walt on detached duty to handle the direct mail for the Eisenhower-Nixon presidential campaign. The following is an excerpt from The Solid Gold Mailbox by Walter Weintz:
Direct Mail Crosses All Marketing Borders
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.
Fortunately, in direct mail you are able to test almost anything, including political appeals.
In 1952, I went to work for the Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon, and I might add, I quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of General Eisenhower. I was asked 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 was it government regulation (a favorite Republican issue, even in those days)?
We would ask for money 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 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.
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!
Nine out of the 10 letters pulled almost exactly the same. The tenth letter, "Coddling the Russians," talked about Korea, and the seemingly never-ending war in which America had gotten embroiled. It pulled 2.5 times as well as any of the other letters.
It was 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.
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 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. Campaign finance manager 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.
Summing Up What We Learned From the Early Republican Direct Mail Efforts
- We proved that political appeals can be tested—just like sales appeals for any other product. And we substituted test results for opinions.
- We discovered that we could make such tests, and subsequent rollout mailings, self-financing.
- We had found a way (in the guise of fundraising) to influence millions of voters, through self-financing mail order appeals.
- We had evolved a method of getting many voters to "bet on a horse"—that is, contribute money to a candidate—which made it much more likely that those voters would indeed get out and vote for the candidate of their choice.
- An ancillary benefit: voters who put "money on a horse" wanted that horse to win. So contributors urged friends, family and neighbors to vote for Eisenhower-Nixon.
- And, finally, we'd established a way to secure the names of hundreds of thousands of supporters—people who could be counted upon to contribute to our cause in response to future appeals. We had that most precious of all mail order possessions: a list of customers!
- The final Eisenhower letter, which I wrote, put all these elements together, and produced the desired effect: $1 million in contributions. With established mail order basics at our service, raising that $1 million was a simple matter. It took only one letter!
Takeaways to Consider
- "Fortunately, in direct mail you are able to test almost anything, including political appeals." —Walter Weintz
- Don't let pundits and babble-heads define the issues.
- Test issue-oriented fund raising appeals.
- The winning tests—the ones that generate the most revenue—become the USP (Unique Selling Proposition).
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