Cruz, the Direct Mail Disruptor

When is direct mail disruptive mail? When it helps a conservative senator whip a media sensation in the first big test of the presidential election season.

The Ted Cruz campaign helped get out the vote for its candidate’s four-percentage-point victory over Donald Trump with a direct mail campaign to Iowa voters for which it was severely criticized in the press. The New Yorker labeled the mailers “fraudulent” and Mother Jones accused the Texas senator’s staff of spreading false information.

Though the mailers arrived in envelopes tagged “Paid for by Cruz for President,” inside were official-looking pieces notifying recipients of a “Voter Violation” and comparing their voting records with their neighbors’. People were singled out with letter grades and percentage scores, apparently denoting the number of recent elections in which they took part.

Mailer copy read: “You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history, as well as your neighbors’, are public record. Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score, as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE.” A note at the bottom states that voter history records are public documents made available by the Iowa Secretary of State or county election clerks.

The Cruz campaign was inspired by a paper titled “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout” published in the American Political Science Review in 2008 by professors from Yale and the University of Northern Iowa. A direct mail experiment in which they sent voter turnout scores to 80,000 Michigan voters led them to conclude that “the influence of a single piece of direct mail turns out to be formidable when (and only when) social pressure is exerted.”

How Cruz campaign staffers chose which Iowa households should receive the mailer to increase returns for their candidate is unclear, although the Cruz organization is known to use behavioral data in targeting its appeals. Mailings could also have been targeted to areas—such as the heavily religious districts in the northern part of the state—known to lean toward Cruz.

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