25th Anniversary Issue: Mail Mobilizes Political Movements

The United States elected Ronald Reagan president 24 years ago, and direct mail made it happen. In fact, the conservative movement as we know it would not exist without direct mail.

Talk radio, cable television and the Internet played valuable roles in expanding the power of the conservative movement, but they were Johnny-come-latelies, not appearing until the late 1980s and 1990s.

I was privileged to play a central role in building the conservative movement through direct mail. I didn’t create political direct mail, though. Reader’s Digest loaned the services of its direct mail guru, Walter H. Weintz, to Sen. Robert A. Taft in his 1950 campaign for re-election and to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in his 1952 presidential campaign.

This sort of broad-based political support was revolutionary, considering that most presidential campaigns were financed by a relative handful of fat-cat supporters. In effect, the Republicans had discovered a secret weapon but failed to use it in a systematic, sustained way because the party under Eisenhower and Nixon was oriented toward the establishment, not a grassroots base. It would take the Democrats even longer to appreciate mail’s potential.

We conservatives were searching for a way to communicate with each other and get our message to the public. The mainstream media – the three TV networks, plus major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post – were uniformly establishment liberal in their politics.

Since then, political direct mail has created a revolution by greatly expanding the number of people actively involved in choosing their government. And not just by getting out the vote in November.

Voting is merely the last act in the process of selecting who governs us, and it is not the most decisive part. By the time people vote, the candidates have been selected and the issues debated or obfuscated. That is the most important part of the process because it determines what choices we have in November. This is where mail has had its greatest impact: It gives conservatives a voice in setting the political agenda.

Liberals, Too

Liberals woke up to the power of mail on Nov. 4, 1980, when Reagan won. By then, The Viguerie Company had enjoyed a 15-year head start in using the mailbox to build a political movement. Liberals were asleep at the wheel, but they have leveled the playing field since then. Direct marketing professionals like Roger Craver, Morris Dees, Hal Malchow and Mal Warwick have made liberalism a force in politics.

They probably even have surpassed conservatives in the effective use of direct mail. Think of the hundreds of liberal policy groups concerned with environmental, consumer, civil rights and other causes. Almost without exception, they have been built by direct mail. Before they turned to direct mail, Planned Parenthood had only 8,000 donors, the League of Women Voters had only 20,000 members and the American Civil Liberties Union counted a mere 10,000 on its rolls.

The Republicans got seriously into direct mail in 1978, when former Viguerie Company executives Wyatt Stewart and Steve Winchell expanded the GOP’s donor list of 25,000 names to 2 million by November 1980. This played a role in Reagan’s election and the GOP’s capture of the Senate.

Today, the GOP is wedded to DM-style niche marketing, with a former direct mail executive, Karl Rove, as the chief political strategist in the White House. Meanwhile, because of the Democratic Party’s longstanding dependence on labor unions, government money and big special-interest donors, it has lagged in direct mail – until this year.

What My Virtual Crystal Ball Shows

In the first four months of this year, according to Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, the Democrats sent 35 million pieces of prospect mail, more than their output for the entire previous decade.

And the Internet now joins mail as a political fundraising and organizing tool. Campaign manager Joe Trippi made Howard Dean the first presidential candidate to raise most of his money over the Internet in small donations, and Sen. John Kerry is doing even better on the Internet than Dean did last year.

In an amazing turnaround, the Democrats now enjoy a 7-to-1 advantage over the Republicans in raising money via the Internet and have leveled the playing field in direct mail. Kerry has more than 1 million Internet contributors, and three-fourths of his contributors have been obtained by mail or the Internet. Combining both alternative media, the Democrats are outraising the GOP 2-1 in these small contributions.

What’s going on? For one thing, grassroots conservatives are demoralized by the big spending policies of the Bush administration and the GOP Congress while Democrats are united and energized in their desire to oust President Bush.

Whichever party wins in November, this stands to be the first presidential election where alternative media play the decisive role in mobilizing troops and raising money. And if the Democrats win, their challenge will be to keep their new base energized.

As for the future, I expect the Internet to surpass mail as the foremost fundraising vehicle, perhaps by the 2008 election. Conservatives are now the ones who have to play catch-up with the Internet. Are they up to the task? My virtual crystal ball is getting cloudy.

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