Cover Story: Political Direct Marketing 2004
Two months from now, President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry will wage their final battle for the White House, capping off an emotionally charged, hard-driving election campaign that has seized American consciousness like no other.
To illustrate, consider that when George H.W. Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton in 1992, he didn’t mention him by name until July. And in 1996, Clinton didn’t mention Bob Dole by name until August. This time around, the candidates traded barbs as early as Super Tuesday in March.
In a presidential election with so much at stake, political operatives are relying more than ever on the Internet — to raise funds, deliver information in real time and mobilize voters. Never has the medium been so integral in the political process.
According to the 2004 study, Political Influentials Online in the 2004 Presidential Campaign, conducted by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, 10 percent of the Internet public donated to a presidential campaign in December 2003.
During the 2004 presidential primaries, IPDI studied individuals who were involved in the campaigns through the Internet and found that they were disproportionately male, highly educated and earned above-average annual salaries. These people, defined as “Online Political Citizens,” tend to be more interested in news and politics than Americans in general, making them a uniquely attractive audience for political candidates.
While only about 2 percent of the American public and 7 percent of Internet users make political contributions online, the IPDI study showed that the people who are interested in politics and actively participate through the Internet have a considerably higher rate of contributing online — about 24 percent.
Democratic challenger John Kerry turned to the Internet in early July to name his running mate. Hours before he went public with the decision, Kerry e-mailed his choice of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to more than 1 million individuals who signed up on his Web site, JohnKerry.com, marking the first time a candidate used the Internet for such a crucial announcement. According to reports, roughly 150,000 people signed up to receive the e-mail alert once Kerry told reporters that his Web site subscribers would be the first to hear the news.
The lead paragraph of that historic e-mail read: “In just a few minutes, I will announce that Senator John Edwards will join me as my running mate on the Democratic ticket as a candidate for vice president of the United States. Teresa and I could not be more excited that John and Elizabeth Edwards will be our partners in our journey to make America stronger at home and respected in the world.”
The Kerry-Edwards campaign raised $3.3 million online in the first three days following the big announcement and, as of July 20, JohnKerry.com remained the campaign’s top fundraiser with more than $65 million in 2004. All told, the campaign raised $36.5 million in the month of June (the most recent month of data available), $99.2 million in the second quarter of 2004, more than $160 million in 2004 and a democratic record-breaking $186 million for the entire primary campaign. Of the total amount raised, $171 million (92 percent) came from individual contributors, large and small.
Internet fundraising played a pivotal role, forcing many to forget how throughout most of 2003 Kerry raised only about $1 million online, while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean raked in tens of millions.
“It’s clearly a huge vehicle for us. The Internet is the quickest way to get a message out to millions of people at hardly any expense,” says Nancy Eiring, national director of grassroots fundraising for John Kerry for President, Inc. “We noticed that our online donors were making more $100 contributions than $1,000 or $2,000 contributions. We knew there was this grassroots momentum happening where people wanted to give what they could, even if it was just a $25 check.”
Eiring says the Kerry campaign created her position to fashion coordinated direct mail, e-mail, telemarketing and online-advertising efforts aimed at low-dollar audiences — anyone who gave $1,000 or less. In engaging this key constituency on the grassroots level, and online, Kerry moved beyond simply relying on large events and large checks, as he did throughout most of 2003. (This year, 90 percent of contributions were less than $250; 40 percent were less than $50.)
At first, some Kerry aides reportedly resisted raising money through the Internet, but Dean’s unprecedented success could not be ignored.
The Dean factor
The campaign of Dean for America, Inc. raised about 50 percent of its $41 million through the Internet, propelling him — at least for a brief moment — to the front of the pack in the Democratic race for the White House.
While partnering with Internet software and services firm Convio, the Dean camp created an ongoing dialogue with constituents through online surveys, polls and petitions, as well as online forums — Web logs, also known as blogs — to allow constituents to voice their opinions, make suggestions and communicate with other supporters.
Dean blasted out e-mail communications on a near-daily basis asking members to sign time-sensitive petitions and forward messages to friends and family members. Dean continually challenged supporters to participate in specific drives by setting up online initiatives with firm deadlines and goals.
In all, Dean engaged roughly 650,000 supporters online, drawing an average of 430,000 unique daily Web site visits. The entire cost of his Internet campaign totaled about $1 million, which means it raised about a dollar for every nickel spent on fundraising. For Kerry’s efforts, the cost of Internet fundraising amounts to only three cents of every dollar raised.
The inclusion of Kerry’s Web address in his Iowa victory speech proved to be a turning point for the campaign’s Internet fundraising initiatives and overall online presence, as evidenced by the unprecedented $2.6 million raised in just one day, two days following Super Tuesday.
But once the Democratic party made it clear that Kerry would be its standard bearer against President Bush on Nov. 2, the campaign’s online fundraising efforts really intensified. Kerry launched a drive to raise $10 million in ten days and kick-started a steady stream of e-mail appeals from party superstars such as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton and James Carville. E-mails also came to inboxes signed by Kerry campaign staff: Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager; John Ross, of the IT department; and Eiring herself — to give messages a more personal feel.
In June alone, JohnKerry.com raised $12.1 million, with an average contribution of $99. According to Eiring, of the more than 1 million opt-in e-mail subscribers, 45 percent eventually become active donors. Even those members who don’t ante up the greenbacks are valuable to the Kerry camp, simply because they’re plugged in.
“Some of the support we are receiving online is not necessarily financial in nature. Our [members] get out their e-mails to neighbors and friends to spread the message as to why they support John Kerry,” says Eiring, former deputy development director at Emily’s List, the nation’s largest grassroots-political network dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office. “We understand the importance of building our e-mail list, because come November, we need to reach out to everyone as quickly as possible to relay our message and get them to vote.”
It was Dean who first showed political fundraisers that the more you ask of your online supporters, the more they will do, affirms Danny Rose, director of Internet operations for 21st Century Democrats, a political action committee dedicated to supporting progressive political candidates.
“Online [political] fundraising isn’t just asking people for money, but giving them ways to get involved and feel like they’re making a difference, like they are personally connected to the candidate,” says Rose, a former field organizer for Dean’s presidential campaign and a founding member of D.C. for Dean, a grassroots organization.
Currently, 21st Century Democrats is fetching close to the industry average of $100 online, while direct mail is drawing close to $30, and Rose says the recent e-phenomenon in the political world is based on organizations’ efforts to build relationships with supporters by engaging them with timely information — another lesson learned from Dean.
“Mass-advertising time is getting more expensive, and it’s getting harder to reach people with it,” says Laurie Moskowitz, a principal at FieldWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm specializing in grassroots organizing and field strategies. “Towards the end [of the election], when all you see is wall-to-wall commercials, it doesn’t gain a candidate that much marginal impact to run a spot. Candidates need to find other ways of reaching people.”
Moskowitz, who directed the Democratic National Committee’s Coordinated Campaign in 2000, which focused on voter contact and overall Democratic turnout, says the Internet has done just that, both for grassroots organizing and fundraising.
But, she cautions: “Reaching out to any group of voters is only as good as what they’re willing to do. Having their name on an e-mail list doesn’t do you any good if they’re ultimately not engaged with you.”
Earlier this year, to keep constituents energized and involved, the Kerry campaign sent out a Web-based petition castigating Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his handling of the Abu Graib prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq. The initiative received more than 400,000 signatures, 200,000 of which were new to JohnKerry.com.
“The e-mail alerts help people understand what our thinking is, what we need to be doing and why we need their support,” Eiring says.
Bush gains online, but can’t overtake Kerry
Bush-Cheney ‘04, by comparison, does not rely as heavily on the Internet as a primary fundraising tool but has found success in engaging constituents with localized campaign communications. Through June 2004, the Bush campaign raised a total of $8.7 million on the Internet, $1.1 million in the month of June alone.
“We have set up a very sophisticated e-mail operation so that we can target our e-mails to specific counties in different states,” says Mike Turk, e-campaign director for Bush-Cheney ‘04, which currently sees an average online contribution of $100. “If there’s a voter-registration drive going on in Albuquerque, N.M., we can let people know in that county and surrounding counties without doing a mass broadcast.”
For President Bush’s recent bus tour through Michigan and Ohio, campaign canvassers distributed flyers urging people to donate time and money to Bush-Cheney ‘04; the materials featured special “sign-up” landing pages that coincided with the specific event (day, time and city) the individual attended. Turk says the strategy was effective in spurring online traffic and providing an option for people who might have been reluctant to sign up on the spot.
Other online efforts employed by the Bush campaign have included special appeals from the likes of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as well as other GOP luminaries, and alerts that feature voter-registration materials and maps of polling places in the recipient’s area.
“There are a tremendous number of people who are no longer getting campaign messages through TV and other traditional media channels,” Turk says. “As a result, it’s very important for us to extend our reach as much as possible to touch every voter we can.”
One demographic segment that particularly intrigued the Bush camp was working mothers. According to research, a significant percentage of working and single moms have shifted online to get their news, shop and communicate with friends and family. The campaign thus created an online-advertising appeal targeting Web sites that working moms visit on a regular basis. The message came from first lady Laura Bush and focused on an issue that most women consider critical this election cycle: education reform.
As one might suspect, online donors and supporters of Bush-Cheney ‘04 tend to be younger — in the range of 18 to 45 — and not quite as affluent as the typical GOP base. But Turk says there are a significant number of older members in their 60s and 70s who actively use the online fundraising tools available to GeorgeWBush.com volunteers.
“Our 6 million-name e-mail list is 100 percent organic, contrary to some assertions that we have engaged in [renting] names,” Turk says. “These are people who have expressed an interest in the president’s agenda, either through our Web site or the Republican National Committee Web site.”
But despite a 6-to-1 edge over Kerry in online members, the Bush campaign witnessed less online traffic from February through June in all but one month of tracking, according to Internet-audience analysts Nielsen//NetRatings. The John Kerry for President Web site attracted 1.7 million unique visitors during the month of February, while the Bush-Cheney ‘04 Web site drew only 865,000. Over the following few months, John Kerry continued to attract more unique visitors, with his highest edge being in May when he pulled 1.8 million to GeorgeWBush.com’s 1.2 million. But in June, Bush fetched more than 2.2 million visitors to Kerry’s 1.2 million.
According to comScore Networks’ analysis, JohnKerry.com drew an average of 28,000 visitors per hour between 10AM and midnight EST on Thursday, July 29, the day the challenger spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In all, more than 300,000 Americans visited his Web site during July 29, a starkly different audience level than recorded on an average day. (In June, JohnKerry.com drew an average of approximately 40,000 visitors per day.)
Also, during Kerry’s speech, GeorgeWBush.com attracted approximately 30,000 visitors — the highest hourly traffic level recorded for the site during that week.
“We’ve seen the number of unique Web site visitors increase since March, as soon as we knew who our opponent was going to be,” Turk says. “We expect to see a huge traffic bump coming out of the [Republican National Convention], and then building up to the crescendo right before election day.”
A direct-mail duel
One of the most obvious yet compelling differences between online and offline political fundraising is the cost. Pieces of direct mail — when you calculate paper costs, list rental and production fees, among other expenses — can total 40 cents to 60 cents a package. But despite unprecedented gains in Internet technology, as well as the cost effectiveness of blasting out urgent e-mail solicitations, direct mail is still the unflinching workhorse of any political-fundraising campaign. For starters, direct mail still is used more as the medium for advanced targeting and segmentation, and is more relevant to and trusted by certain demographic groups, such as older individuals who represent the core of philanthropic giving.
For years, the Republicans had the jump on the Democrats, both in terms of database sophistication and direct mail inventiveness. During the Reagan years, Republican candidates and conservative mailers practiced sound direct marketing, sparing no expense by offering donors and prospects fine paper stock, embossed certificates, plastic membership cards, four-color glossy photographs of the candidate and his wife, and stickers and decals.
What’s more, the GOP began working on its integrated national-voter database as early as 1990, giving it a considerable edge in reaching core constituencies through the mail. But the Democrats caught up in 2002, when they introduced their DataMart, a national database similar to the GOP voter file that includes voter history, U.S. Census data, commercial behavior and geographical information.
Richard Viguerie, political copywriter and chairman of American Target Advertising, has observed how “the left has certainly caught up,” and adds that many right-wing organizations have not done nearly enough professional, sophisticated list segmentation and targeting for this election cycle.
“It has been a shock and an unpleasant surprise to Republican leaders nationwide that the advantage they have enjoyed over many years has basically been erased by the Democrats’ success in direct mail fundraising this year,” says Viguerie, who is widely regarded as the “funding father” of the conservative movement. Shortly after GOP presidential candidate and staunch conservative Barry Goldwater lost the election in 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson, Viguerie copied the names and addresses of roughly 12,500 Goldwater donors available at the Library of Congress and used the information to launch direct mail appeals.
The Republican party soon attracted millions of grassroots donors through the mail — by appealing to their conservative instincts on taxes, national security and social issues.
“For a time, wealthy, old money wasn’t the only funding source for the Republican party,” Viguerie figures. “It was the $25 dollar rancher from Wyoming and the $50 dollar small-business person from Texas. It changed the party far more than putting money in the coffers.”
Today, the GOP relies less on grassroots fundraising and more on special events. (At June’s end, Bush had raised a total of $131 million through events, with an average contribution of $129.)
Still, the Bush campaign’s direct mail has been flowing through mailboxes at a heavy clip since January. Bush raised a total of $87 million with direct mail and telemarketing through June, pulling $11.5 million in the last month alone. Kerry brought in $45 million with direct mail and telemarketing since Super Tuesday, fetching $13.8 million in June and an overall average contribution of $72.
One Bush effort in particular arrived in a 93⁄4-inch-by-11-inch, inline-produced, kraft-colored envelope, and featured a four-color photo of George and Laura, with the adjoining copy:
“Mrs. [LAST NAME], thank you for your support and friendship as a Charter Member from New York. With your help we can make America stronger, safer and more prosperous.”
(The photo front-end premium must be working for the Bush camp. The Who’s Mailing What! Archive logged myriad pictures of Bush: on his horse at his ranch in Crawford, Texas; in the Oval Office; and on the campaign trail.) The package also included a three-page, personalized letter — interspersed with the person’s first name and last — and a full-page donor form, which featured a seven-level ask string starting at $1,000 and moving down to $25.
Another Bush effort took a slightly different approach: a No. 10 cream-colored outer envelope with a two-page letter, donor form, BRE and a one-page fact sheet. (Pictured on Page 59.) The fact sheet, dubbed “Strategic Update,” employed the use of faux-highlighting over critical lines of copy. For example, one bulleted paragraph read:
“Americans overwhelmingly trust the President over John Kerry on handling crises and securing the homeland. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, President Bush had a 17-point advantage on who “can be trusted in a crisis” and a 16-point advantage on making “the country safe and more secure.”
As noted by the Archive, for one winback solicitation, Bush-Cheney ‘04 employed a letter-copy technique long used by the Republican National Committee:
“Dear [FIRST NAME]: I don’t want to believe you’ve abandoned the Republican Party, but I have to ask … have you given up?”
For Kerry’s mail, the campaign opted for a straightforward approach, abandoning — for the most part — oversized packages brimming with decals, bumper stickers and photographs (although the splashy 9-inch-by-12-inch with “urgent response” verbiage is a staple in every direct-response political-fundraising campaign) and sticking with plain No. 10s. Kerry’s most widely used effort, according to the Archive, features a one-line teaser on the outer: “Let’s go for it!”
The package includes just a one-page letter, donor card (with a small-dollar ask string) and BRE. (Pictured on Page 56.) The lead paragraph of the letter reads:
“We’re going for it! … People all across the country are lining up to support our campaign, committing their time, energy and financial support to helping end the Bush presidency.”
According to Eiring, the Kerry campaign consistently has pulled about a 15 percent response rate from acquisition packages — those efforts mailed to members of the DNC, liberal and progressive organizations, women’s organizations, environmental groups and democratic-voter files. The swelled coffers of both candidates can be attributed to their decisions to skip public financing and the spending limits that come with it — as well as the unparalleled response from contributors — large and small.