Different Party, Different Tactic
It might be an off year for big elections, but political fundraising never takes a hiatus. You can be sure that even with almost two years left in the current presidential administration, copywriters around the country, from every political party, are gearing up for the next big push.
Well-known political direct-mail strategist Hal Malchow recently spoke with FundRaising Success about raising money for political campaigns and how to connect with political donors. Malchow also is an author and president of Washington, D.C.-based communications firm MSHC Partners Inc.
FundRaising Success: Do potential political donors respond better to mail with a negative spin (bashing the opponent) or a positive one (celebrating the candidate)?
Hal Malchow: It varies by party. Mail for Republican candidates and Republican Party mail tends to be negative. I have almost never seen a reply card in a Republican mailing without the word “liberal Democrats.” On the whole, positive mail performs better for Democrats. There are exceptions. During the 2004 presidential elections, a very negative mailing about George W. Bush was the top performer of the year. But, generally, Democratic donors respond better to positive messaging.
Some of this pattern arises from the different directions from which these donors approach government and politics. Republicans become Republicans because they believe government is too big and people need to be protected from the government — which is an essentially negative view of government. Therefore, Republicans need to be reminded of the threat that Democratic politicians pose.
Many Democrats are Democrats because they believe government can and should do good things to advance opportunity and help people in need. That is a more positive vision. Democrats like to know what their candidates want to accomplish.
FS: Is there a happy medium? Or would a more balanced approach not have enough impact either way?
HM: Generally, the best strategy is driven by the personalities and the issues that are at play in politics at the time. Negative mail worked better for Democrats in 2004 because the dislike of George W. Bush was more prominent in the donors’ minds than a love for John Kerry. For either party, positive or negative can work. Or, a happy medium might be the best strategy. It depends on what’s on the minds of the donors. If they are really angry, negative mail works better. If they’re finding inspiration from a candidate, the positive mail works better. Sometimes a mix is the right strategy.
FS: Who are political donors? Can you paint a picture of the typical political supporter?
HM: They tend to be similar to charitable donors in that they are predominantly older and retired. Internet donors are younger but not as much as you might think. I would guess that the median age of all political direct-mail donors would be between 65 and 70 — which is the case for many charities, as well. For phone donors and Internet donors, that figure would probably be in the high 50s.
The thing that distinguishes political donors is, not surprisingly, ideology. Republican donors tend to be the most conservative Americans. Democratic donors tend to be the most liberal Americans. One reason that Republicans have historically raised more money from direct response is not that there are more Republicans than Democrats, but that there are 50 percent more
conservatives than liberals.
FS: Where do you find people who are likely to give to your campaign?
HM: The primary source of names on both sides is donors to conservative and liberal causes. These lists are generally available on a rental or exchange basis. During presidential elections and when the mail is performing especially well, candidates and parties can also successfully solicit selected portions of voter lists.
FS: Direct-mail/e-mail solicitation for campaign financial support obviously works best for people who already are in your corner, but how likely is it to work with the undecided crowd or even non-supporters?
HM: Almost no undecided voters give. A fundraising letter might inform someone about a candidate, but it’s unlikely to move them all the way from neutral to actually giving a donation. Most givers already support the candidate or the party. Most are probably just waiting to be asked.
FS: Kiss of death … what is it for this audience?
HM: Waffling on issues or being too far ahead in the polls. High-dollar donors flock to the expected winner. Direct-mail donors give to candidates they believe need the money.
FS: Do people give to parties, causes or candidates?
HM: They give to all three but, at least on the Democratic side, giving to candidates through direct mail has been declining. More of the giving has focused on causes and, in recent years, party fundraising has made something of a comeback.