Perhaps no method of campaigning was more crucial to the creation of the conservative movement in America than direct mail. Even in today’s environment, when virtually all American voters have access to e-mail or telephones, campaign appeals in the mail remain a crucial element of successful campaigns.
Direct mail is not cheap. Furthermore, with so much junk mail arriving in the average American’s mailbox every day, you can expect a large percentage of your mailings will be immediately deposited in the trash. Because of the costs associate with large mailings, it is easy to see the appeal of relying primarily on online or telephone appeals. When conducted correctly, however, a direct mail campaign can make the difference between victory and defeat.[i]
Political scientists have long studied the efficacy of direct mail, as have campaign professionals. While there is widespread agreement that direct mail is important to campaigns, it is more important for fundraising than for voter turnout. In fact, there are few studies indicating that direct mail is an effective method for getting voters to the polls – though some evidence suggests it can be an effective method of voter persuasion.
Direct mail and the conservative movement
When a conservative Republican utilizes direct mail for fundraising and voter mobilization, that candidate is following in the footsteps of some of the most celebrated figures in the movement’s history. In the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, conservatism in America appeared to be down for the count. One prescient conservative saw a silver lining to Goldwater’s disastrous campaign: it showed which Americans were committed to Goldwater’s conservative values, and could be relied upon in the future to build the movement. In the run-up to the 1964 election, thousands of individual donors gave money to the Goldwater campaign. When the campaign ended, Richard Viguerie correctly intimated that these people would be willing to give again, if they were asked. At the end of 1964, Viguerie went to the office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. He then copied by hand 12,500 names and addresses of people who gave Goldwater $50 or more.[ii]
From this relatively small list, Viguerie began the work of asking for additional donations for various conservative causes. Viguerie played a role in building prominent conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association, The Conservative Caucus, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Human Events, and several dozen others.[iii] Republicans and conservative organizations continued to have an advantage over Democrats and liberal organizations in direct mail fundraising for decades to come, and it remains a crucial source of funds for the conservative movement.
It is important to understand that direct mail, while important, can be frustrating and have a low-response rate. Thus, it is important to be realistic about what direct mail can accomplish, and know what the research tells us about maximizing the effectiveness of direct mail.