An overlooked reason for Bill de Blasio’s sweeping victory in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary is this surprising fact: his campaign sent no snail mail to voters in the months leading up to the election. As a result of not spending money adding to the pile of political mailings that voters quickly put in the recycle bin, de Blasio was able to spend roughly $200,000 more than his competitors on television ads in a race where all were limited by the same spending cap.
De Blasio’s abandonment of direct mail in a city whose candidates routinely prioritize this method is another watershed impact of his candidacy. Political consultants profiting from direct mail have long squandered money on what has become a poor way to reach targeted voters. This has often come at the expense of money for person to person contact. If NYC’s geographically spread out electorate can be targeted without direct mail, its days as a key political messaging strategy are numbered.
Most political campaigns face an internal battle between those wanting to spend money on mail vs. proponents of allocating resources to contacting voters (aka “field”). Since the campaign manager was often connected to if not directly profiting from direct mail, the mail side usually won these fights.
As a result, candidates spent a high percentage of dollars on repetitive mailers that were tossed or recycled prior to being read. And this over emphasis on costly direct mail particularly hurt low budget grassroots campaigns.
Campaigns on Auto-Pilot
Pioneered on the left by Morris Dees for the 1972 McGovern campaign and on the right by Richard Viguerie for Senate candidates in the 1970’s, direct mail became the go-to strategy for nearly all campaigns. I worked on a San Francisco rent control campaign in 1979 that devoted much of its budget to direct mail on the theory that it had to compete with what landlords were mailing; dissenters argued that tenants could never beat landlords in a campaign decided by mailers, and the election outcome confirmed this.
Direct mail dominated campaign resources for the vast majority of local and state campaigns into the Internet and cable television era. And despite technological advances that have completely changed the rules for reaching and persuading voters, many campaign managers turn to direct mail as if their strategy was on auto-pilot.
Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos used to criticize Democratic Presidential candidates for choosing Bob Shrum to run their campaigns despite his poor track record (he lost with Dick Gephardt and Mike Dukakis in 1988, Bob Kerrey in 1992, Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004). Shrum was used for the same reason that candidates rely on direct mail: it makes them feel that they are using the tactics (or people) that have credibility with elites.
Direct mail is also easier. You don’t have to set up a huge outreach staff to contact voters, but instead can run a campaign primarily through the candidate’s personal appearances and the creation of campaign literature and television ads.
While some voters always complained about excessive campaign mailings, strategists insisted that the tactic was effective. But with so many people switching to online billing and other paper reduction strategies, candidates using direct mail---particularly those in environmentally conscious urban centers--- risk alienating voters.
While voters are accustomed to seeing commercials, and may care little whether they promote a candidate or new car, they do not like getting junk mail. And if “junk mail” is understood as unrequested information sent on a mass basis, than political literature fits the bill.
The mobility of the electorate in large cities also makes microtargeting via mail more difficult. It is still done to target women or ethnic groups by surname, but, like campaigns phoning into landlines, direct mail misses too many key voters.
Voter Contacts Win Elections
While de Blasio’s savings on mail allowed him to outspend opponents on television, the real key to his victory (in addition to his message) was his powerful field operation. Direct voter contact won Barack Obama the presidency in 2008, and it won Robert Kennedy the California Democratic presidential primary as far back as 1968---yet field campaigns were soon replaced by television ads and direct mail in the 1970’s.
So the next time your mailbox is filled with political mailings from a candidate, there’s a good chance that it is coming from a losing campaign.
Randy Shaw’s new book is, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.