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Willisms

« SPAM. | WILLisms.com | Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 104 -- American Stock Ownership. »

The Democrats' Direct Mail.

An interesting read on the Democrats' use of direct mail, which mostly emanates from their intellectual capital city, San Francisco.

In 1925, political scientist Harold Gosnell conducted a groundbreaking study that showed the power of direct mail in boosting turnout in a Chicago mayoral race. Less than a decade later, attack mailers were used to discredit muckraker Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid for California governor.

For most of the nation's history, efforts to woo selected voters were primitive at best. A piece of mail — a form letter or perhaps a broadsheet designed to look like a newspaper — might have been delivered to a certain precinct based on its voting history. But even in a 75% Republican precinct, one in four letters were wasted on Democratic households....

...the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections listed more than 100 direct-mail firms in its most recent consultant scorecard. Of those, 15 or so handle the bulk of the work nationwide; among Democrats, many of the biggest players have San Francisco as their return address....

In 1925, political scientist Harold Gosnell conducted a groundbreaking study that showed the power of direct mail in boosting turnout in a Chicago mayoral race. Less than a decade later, attack mailers were used to discredit muckraker Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid for California governor.

For most of the nation's history, efforts to woo selected voters were primitive at best. A piece of mail — a form letter or perhaps a broadsheet designed to look like a newspaper — might have been delivered to a certain precinct based on its voting history. But even in a 75% Republican precinct, one in four letters were wasted on Democratic households.

Also, voting records were often haphazard, so creating any sort of reliable mailing list was enormously time-consuming and, thus, not terribly cost effective. Sorting voters by occupation, marital status or ethnic surname in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco — something that can be done today in seconds — would take a team of campaign workers days to complete 50 years ago.

And then computers changed everything.

The use of refrigerator-size mainframes in the 1960s allowed for creation of the first quality voter lists, which enabled candidates and their strategists to target mailings based on such attributes as voting frequency, ethnicity, gender, household size and birthplace.

California was a natural proving ground, as the home of Silicon Valley. It also helped that the state kept some of the best voter records in the country and that a transient population and weak party system prevented the growth of Eastern- and Midwestern-style political machines, which stymied innovation there and kept candidates beholden to party bosses.

But the biggest incentive to improve the sophistication and reach of political mail was that proverbial mother of invention, in this case the need to work around the huge cost of television advertising.

Austin, Texas, meanwhile, likely holds the distinction of being the Republican direct mail epicenter.

Posted by Will Franklin · 11 July 2005 01:05 AM

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