Election '98: Direct Mail Sways Niche Voters

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In an election year characterized by low voter turnout, a number of special interest groups energized the electorate through direct marketing campaigns.


"This year, we made a concerted effort to put even more resources into the get-out-the-vote efforts," said Lisa Wade, communications director for the League of Conservation Voters, Washington. "As far as reminding people that there's an election going on, encouraging them to vote and to remember a particular issue, mail and phone were absolutely essential."


For this year's election, the league focused on defeating 12 candidates with particularly poor records on the environment, which it dubbed the Dirty Dozen. The league sent 201,500 pieces of direct mail and made 227,500 telephone calls in a $2.3 million campaign that detailed the anti-environment records of the targeted candidates.


The effort worked. Nine of the 12 were defeated, including incumbent Lauch Faircloth in a crucial North Carolina Senate race and two incumbents in the House of Representatives.


Victories attributed to direct mail were especially prevalent in California, where millions of voters were targeted based on their ethnic background. Republican Bob Dornan, running in the state's 46th Congressional District, was the bull's-eye of not only the Dirty Dozen campaign but also the Yes on 5 initiative aimed at Latino voters.


Yes on 5, a proposition to finance economic development for Native Americans through legalized gambling, was credited with stirring enough participation by Latino voters to change the course of five major races, including the race for governor and the U.S. Senate in favor of Democratic, pro-Latino candidates.


Centaur Communications, Los Angeles, coordinated the direct mail effort, which reached 1.2 million frequent Latino voters with an absentee ballot application four weeks before Election Day and five separate mail pieces over the last 10 days of the campaign.


Each of the bilingual, four-color, fold-out mail pieces emphasized that retired Republican Gov. Pete Wilson had sponsored anti-Indian legislation and that supporting Yes on 5 was the right thing to do historically. Centaur president Leo Briones kept the message simple and symbolic. Latinos were targeted through a database of 670,000 households assembled from county government rolls and cross-checked with homeowner data.


"Direct mail is the best way to communicate in these campaigns," Briones said. "California is pretty diverse with a lot of microaudiences that need to be targeted."


Hal Malchow, a principal at the voter persuasion mail company Crounse & Malchow, Washington, said direct mail has been playing a growing role in every election and has become a more efficient advertising medium than television. Mail has assumed a greater significance because of advances in computer and database technology that have improved targeting. Television, meanwhile, has been fragmented by the rise of multiple cable channels.


Malchow said persuasion mail is especially effective in fringe markets such as the suburbs of major metropolitan areas in which TV advertising is too costly and untargeted. He cited the victory of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, Long Island, NY, who turned to mail because she lacked the resources to advertise in the New York metropolitan TV market.


Mail also works best when a special message must be delivered to a slice of the electorate, such as senior citizens or minorities. This was the case in the Georgia gubernatorial race in which the state Democratic Party made a series of calls and dropped two mailings to 300,000 black households in Atlanta on behalf of eventual winner Roy Barnes.
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