Direct mail still a force in campaigns

October 12, 2012

The modern political campaign has fully embraced Twitter, Facebook and other social media to reach voters, but President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are still spending massive sums on a more traditional form of communication: snail mail.

The two presidential campaigns have spent nearly twice as much on old-fashioned fliers, get-out-the-vote cards and other forms of direct mail as they have on Internet advertising, according to disclosure data and campaign aides. The hope is to appeal to millions of baby boomers and retirees, who may prefer the familiarity of the U.S. Mail to pop-up ads, YouTube videos and other flashy media.

The only cost that outstrips mail is broadcast advertising, which is notoriously expensive and has been washing over swing states for months.

Direct mail is especially crucial for Romney, whose supporters skew older than Obama’s. Romney and the Republican National Committee have spent more than $100 million on mail costs, compared with about $70 million for Obama and the Democrats.

One typical Romney mailing to seniors in Florida pledges to “preserve and strengthen Medicare” with “no change in benefits for those in or near retirement.” It features an elderly couple and an older woman — all white — along with a picture of the Republican candidate and his wife, Ann.

“Florida Seniors CAN’T TRUST President Obama,” the brochure reads above a picture of the president looking rather grim. It continues in capital red letters: “BARACK OBAMA HAS FAILED OUR SENIORS.”

Richard Beeson, the Romney campaign’s political director, said that direct mail is a central part of the campaign’s outreach approach, which also includes digital strategies, phone canvassing and other methods aimed at engaging supporters.

“We are believers in voter contact,” Beeson said. “There’s a number of different ways to talk to voters, and the mail is one very effective way.”

Potent political force

The use of mass direct mail in politics stretches back at least as far as George S. McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, which deployed tactics perfected by the mail-order industry. The Religious Right movement of the 1980s married sophisticated voter lists with the reach of the U.S. Postal Service to become a potent political force.

Mailings are used to attack opponents, make policy promises, solicit donations and help supporters register to vote.

“The power of it is still huge because it’s reaching that age group that includes baby boomers, who are still largely more comfortable with direct mail than other, newer forms of communication,” said Paul Bobnak, research director for DirectMarketingIQ, a Philadelphia-based target marketing firm that tracks campaign mailings. “It is still a huge workhorse for political fundraising and messaging.”

In 2008, more than half the voters in the presidential race were 45 or older, according to exit polls. Those 65 or older went for Republican John McCain by 53 percent to 45 percent, while Obama ran about even with McCain among voters aged 45 to 64, the data show.

For many congressional candidates, trade unions and interest groups, direct mail offers a particularly effective, and inexpensive, way to reach supporters.

Last week, the AFL-CIO labor confederation sent out 150,000 mailers to its Ohio members attacking Romney and GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel; afterward, the same households received robocalls repeating the messages.

“Our testing shows that union members spend more time reading and recall more info from our mail program than just general mail from campaigns,” said Ohio AFL-CIO spokesman Mike Gillis.

The Obama campaign has used mailings aimed at women, Latinos, pet owners and a host of other demographic subgroups, part of the campaign’s sometimes obsessive use of micro-targeting. But Obama has also used mailings to press broader themes in key battlegrounds, including sharp-edged attacks on Romney’s wealth, tax policies and history as a private equity fund manager.

Obama pamphlets that poured into Ohio in recent weeks featured images of Romney’s oceanside manse in California and a stretch limousine with a fake license plate reading “ROMNEY 1ST.”

One leaflet shows Romney piloting his luxury powerboat near his lakeside home in New Hampshire, first facing one direction and then another. The images seem to echo a famous 2004 Republican television ad that showed Democrat John F. Kerry switching back and forth as he windsurfed, which was supposed to symbolize flip-flopping and elitism.

“A NEW $250,000 Tax Cut For Multi-Millionaires — Like Himself. But up to $2,000 in Tax Hikes on Families Like Yours,” the caption on the Obama powerboat mailing reads. “Not so fast, Mitt.”

The Obama campaign declined to discuss its direct-mail strategy.

Under the radar

Unlike television ads, which are widely analyzed by the media, political mailings fly under the radar into voters’ mailboxes, rarely getting much notice unless they are particularly provocative. A recent 10-page “voter survey” from the conservative Faith and Freedom Foundation accused Obama of having “Communist beliefs” and compared his policies to the danger posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

One of the most unusual postal pitches to emerge this year came from the Romney campaign, which mailed fliers to voters in Northern Virginia hawking the candidate’s commitment to battling Lyme disease, which it called “a massive epidemic threatening Virginia.” The message may be linked to a meeting Romney had with a Virginia Republican who believes in chronic Lyme disease, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says does not exist.

“That’s something that’s very important to the folks in Fairfax County,” Beeson said, referring to Lyme disease. “The Obama campaign made light of it, and that’s fine, but at the end of the day we will talk about things that are important to people in the state.”

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, said direct mail remains a linchpin of the organization’s strategy. Mail “is especially good for reaching senior citizens” and works well for complex issues such as health care, he said.

But Phillips also said mailings must be coupled with telephone banks, e-mail, broadcast ads and other approaches to break through the media noise.

“The message environment today is so much faster and so much more cluttered than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” he said. “There is no silver bullet. You better be touching people through multiple mediums, multiple times. The goal is to have a presence in all of them.”

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