Effectiveness of Political Mailings Questioned as Election Day Nears

Candidates and campaign strategists across the country have used direct mail the last few weeks to contact the 147 million registered voters, sway the undecided and motivate the uninspired to vote in tomorrow's election.

“Running a campaign is like setting up a business that will go out of business in six months with one big fire sale that is going to take place on the last day,” said Anthony Fazio, a member of the board of directors for the American Association of Political Consultants, Washington. “Our goal with political direct mail is to get people interested in this big sale by talking to them about things that affect them and persuade them to take part.”

Four professionals — who oversee more than 140 campaigns and send 35 million direct mail pieces during an election year for city, state and federal candidates — disagreed on the effectiveness of political direct mail and what should and shouldn't be included in a political mail piece. The one thing they agreed on is that technology has made it much easier to target very specific groups of the electorate.

John Cameron, executive director of Citizen Action Campaigns, Chicago, recognizes that the ability to better target voters has increased greatly.

“Now you can find an independent senior who no longer works and owns his own home in the east side of the district with no problem,” he said. “But direct mail has lost its effectiveness — and if he isn't going to vote, mail isn't going to motivate him to. Either you are going to vote or you are not.”

Cameron said mail is more effective in persuading undecided voters. In his experience, delivering a piece with a positive message about the candidate has played better than one with negative information about the opponent. But too much mail also has a negative result.

“As the sheer quantity of information increases, the effectiveness of that information decreases,” he said.

But Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican campaign consultant and owner of Allan Hoffenblum & Associates, Los Angeles, said a candidate must contact voters at least three or four times to get a message across. He also said it's fair game to go after a candidate's opponent as long as the information is truthful and it discusses a relevant issue.

“The pieces that are most effective are the ones that stress the issue that a voting group is interested in,” he said. “We stress the use of motivational issues or contrasting issues and discuss those which the candidates disagree on and are relevant to voters.”

According to Fazio, knowing whom to talk to and making sure a candidate's message gets to them is the advantage that direct mail offers over television advertising. The way to make political direct mail more appealing to voters is to make it not look like political direct mail.

“People are more sophisticated than they are given credit for,” he said. “They receive a lot of mail and they throw out what doesn't catch their eye. We have people in our business trying to imitate ad agencies, who are effective, and they have no clue what they are doing and people ignore their pieces. It has to be up to the standards of the pieces that they get from other retail companies.”

Hal Malchow, creative director at Crounse & Malchow, Washington, said political direct mail needs to be different from other direct mail.

“Political direct mail should never be in the form of a letter or come in an envelope,” he said. “It should always be very visual and skimmable, with a lot of white space. The goal here is to talk to the least interested part of the list and try to get a minimum amount of information to the highest portion of that list as possible.”

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