The Republicans Continue to Astonish
When I started the cranky little newsletter, Who’s Mailing What! (now Inside Direct Mail) in 1984, I persuaded America’s premier liberal democratic fundraiser, Roger Craver, of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., to write a three-part series on the opposition — the then-current republican efforts that were superb in terms of elegance, sophistication and power. Craver wrote:
“In my experience, the key ingredients in the recipe for successful political direct mail differ markedly from its commercial cousins. Here are the ingredients I consider essential. All successful packages contain most or all of them …
“(1) A sense of mission. There is always a threat, opportunity or challenge that must be met.
“(2) A sense of selectivity. You, Dear Reader, are special because, unlike most of your fellow citizens, you understand. You, more than most, really know what’s going on and are willing to act on your beliefs. Call it ‘elitism’; call it what you will, but the act of pitting the ‘saved’ or ‘knowing’ against those who ‘threaten’ everything that’s good or decent or hopeful is essential to this genre of direct mail.
“(3) A sense of urgent need. Politics is noble. Important. And perhaps nowhere else in our culture is this reflected more than in the mail. Candidate X and Cause A don’t just need money some time in the far-off future. They need it now. By Wednesday. And if they don’t get it, the world surely is going to hell in a hand basket.
“(4) A sense of continuity and effectiveness. Our opponents are powerful, well financed and, of course, about to win if you don’t respond immediately. But … with your help, we’ll prevail. Victory is at hand. The polls show it. Our field staff reports it. Our leaders are committed to it. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. But only with your help.”
The good-old days
I am still dazzled by the republican mailing efforts in the 1980s. At the time, four national organizations were blitzing the country: Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and the republican presidential committees (e.g., Reagan, Bush, Dole, etc.). Plus the landscape was mucked up by a series of conservative political action committees, whose business was raising money in candidates’ names and keeping the money to make more mailings to raise money to make mailings to raise money, and so on ad infinitum.
The official republican stuff was wildly imaginative in terms of gorgeous paper stock; personalized certificates; plastic membership cards; autographs; gold embossing; photographs; and red-white-and-blue tchotchkes. The most outrageous was the Inner Circle, a private, hand-calligraphed formal invitation with a gold seal mailed to high rollers. It contained an invitation to come to Washington for a weekend of briefings, private dinners at the homes of senators and cabinet members, and a dinner with the president. The lift piece was an official Secret Service questionnaire to be filled in for clearance at presidential and vice presidential affairs. Ya gotta love this shameless sale of access to the powerful.
But what about today?
Fast forward to 2004. Are the republicans up to their old tricks? Absolutely not.
Grassroots republican mail efforts to bring in cash have gone the way of the steam engine. Rather than relying on flashy, inventive direct mail, Bush 43 is replicating a technique used with great success by his father, Bush 41, who would waltz into a city, pose for photos with attendees at a $1,000-a-plate dinner, make a speech and then skedaddle. The price of dinner has gone up to $2,000 a plate, and Bush 43 has crisscrossed the country dropping in on these affairs like a pigeon in St. Mark’s Square, amassing a war chest in excess of $150 million.
This extraordinary fundraising success is being covered with glee (and disdain) in the print and broadcast media. Every time a Bush-Cheney commercial runs, it’s covered on cable and network news along with John Kerry’s rejoinder.
In ordinary times, this exorbitant wad of dough would totally swamp the democrats. But this is a very different environment, and we’re looking at the most interesting presidential campaign in my lifetime. Consider the following: John F. Kennedy announced he was a candidate for president on Jan. 2, 1960, and didn’t have the nomination in his pocket until the convention in Los Angeles in July. Kerry had the nomination by March of this year. Bush 41 didn’t mention Bill Clinton by name until July. President Clinton didn’t mention Bob Dole by name until August. By March of this year, the candidates and their operatives already were firing verbal bazookas at one another daily.
And in the mail?
So what are the republicans mailing these days? In the Who’s Mailing What! Archive of direct mail I found the most extraordinary mailing I’ve seen from a presidential campaign in my 20 years of watching the mail. Why extraordinary? Because Bush-Cheney ‘04 has stolen a long-term control from the Republican National Committee — a personalized mailing received for months — nine different times, in fact — with the following lead:
I don’t want to believe you’ve abandoned the Republican Party, but I have to ask … have you given up?”
In February of this year came a mailing from Bush-Cheney ‘04 with the following lead:
I don’t believe you’ve abandoned President Bush and his re-election, but I have to ask … have you given up?”
Imagine! Bush-Cheney ‘04 is so disinterested in direct mail — and so lazy and sated with money — that it swiped copy from the RNC, sending essentially the same mailing to the same list at the same time. This is unheard of! Seems like nothing more than a shameful exercise in list cleaning.
It was the late, great copywriter Bill Jayme who said, “In the marketplace as in theater, there is indeed a factor at work called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief.’” The writers of these virtually identical efforts turn their noses up at the idea. Get this from Bush-Cheney ‘04: “Victory for the Bush-Cheney campaign depends directly on friends like you.”
With $150 million in the till, that is absolute, total BS. One thing fundraisers should remember: If it generally is known that you have a ton of money, your appeals have to be a lot more inventive. An example of what I’m talking about is the “Stewardship Guidelines” literature of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town — now titled the politically correct Girls and Boys Town — which has so huge an endowment (nearly $1 billion) that it never again needs to collect so much as one thin dime in order to survive and prosper. Here’s how the Omaha orphanage sweet talks donors:
- “Every dollar you contribute is spent on the care of youth, right away. This is possible because all costs of solicitation are paid for by the trust fund started by Father Flanagan himself.”
- “We do not sell your name to anyone. No donor information is shared outside the organization. If you want to be removed from our list, write, call or e-mail us.”
- “We provide the best care in America to our children. See our outcomes information on the Web, or e-mail or phone us for a copy.”
- “Our fundraising staff follows the Code of Ethical Principles of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.”
Even though Girls and Boys Town is richer than Croessus, a donor can feel good knowing that every penny contributed goes to the care of the children.
And a footnote
The Bush-Cheney ‘04 mailing contains a “handwritten” footnote that was not used on the Republican National Committee effort from which it stole.
Two aspects of this are worth noting. First, the handwriting on the P.S. does not match that of Mercer Reynolds’s signature. If Bush-Cheney ‘04 had the same hugely talented direct mail wizards on staff that Ronald Reagan and Bush 41 had, Reynolds would have been required to sit down and write the alphabet, as well as combinations of letters, by hand. From this exercise, software would have been created that would enable each P.S. to be personalized with the recipient’s name.
In the words of the great Canadian writer/designer Ted Kikoler, “Anything you can to do make it seem like a human hand has touched the mailing should increase response.”