In 1970, George Mcgovern, the way-long-shot antiwar candidate, began to experiment with the novel political fund-raising technique of direct mail to finance his unlikely primary race.
This political marketing strategy, according to an article that appeared in New York in September 1972, was the brainchild of Morris Dees, who would become among the most prominent southern liberal activists but who was then the head of a publishing company that sold special-interest books through the mail.
The idea—born not so much from marketing brilliance as from a lack of fund-raising alternatives—was to use the mail to solicit people who had already identified themselves as likely McGovern partisans. It was the method, not the goal, that was new—after all, politicians are always looking for help from their core supporters.
But the method introduced a heightened efficiency into the process. Almost all of the mail sent by the McGovern team went to three groups. You got a solicitation if you subscribed to liberal magazines: The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Ramparts, or Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for instance. If your name appeared on lists maintained by organizations like Americans for Democratic Action or the ACLU or Zero Population Growth, you got a letter. Or if your name and address had been among the hundreds of thousands collected over the years of the antiwar movement (perhaps you had contributed to the campaign to support the end-the-war McGovern- Hatfield Amendment), you got a sincere, well-crafted, multipage pitch from the McGovern marketers.
While this selective approach sounds obvious and, indeed, toothless from the current overmailed, overtargeted vantage point, it was revolutionary at that moment, producing the lion’s share of the McGovern campaign’s funds and enough cash to overwhelm the other Democrats in the race.
"Anyone who is regularly in touch with people who respond instantly and passionately over the Internet knows that they are not like you and me."
According to one of the few experts in the then-nascent direct-mail advertising business, Leonard J. Reiss, quoted in New York’s 1972 account: “If you’ve got a good list and you can be personal about what the people on that list want, then direct mail is the best way of selling your product. After all, the McGovern prospect is really like someone who’s avid about, let’s say, birds. McGovern people, almost to a fault, have thought themselves to be special, different from the rest.”
This last point—not just the precise targeting but the exclusivity and insularity of the target—is probably key to understanding the success of McGovern’s direct appeal. It may also help explain why the McGovern campaign remains the most disastrous race for president ever run by the Democratic Party.
The vast amounts of money unexpectedly raised by the McGovern camp—just like the startling sums now being raised by the Howard Dean campaign—translated into the appearance of political success.
The fact that the McGovern mail campaign could return a reliable 4 percent response (in the early seventies, 2 percent would have been a strong response; nowadays a decent direct-mail response is 0.5 percent), and that the Dean Internet campaign is returning a similarly disproportionate response rate, means, in the reductive terms of politics—the more money you have, the more electable you are—you become the leader in the race. This position in turn garners you even more money (and higher response rates).
Money is the absolute. Money is the political lever. Money creates the reality.
Surely, among the seminal hindsight issues for the McGovern campaign, and how it became one of the great modern political debacles, is whether its fund-raising and marketing ingenuity undermined its ultimate chances for success (and snookered the party into nominating a sure loser).
Did its direct-marketing geniuses build a self-selected world? A hermetic place? A snobbish club?
There are two media models at odds here. The first is the old-fashioned mass-media model, which is the stuff of traditional politics—appeal to as many people as you can possibly appeal to. The second, much more profitable model is the special-interest, targeted-audience model, which ultimately succeeds by excluding people—you don’t want to waste your time and effort on the ambivalent and lukewarm.
The modern political model, in theory, focuses at first on core supporters and then uses the profitability of the special-interest targeted-audience strategy to finance the larger mass-appeal campaign. But in a political race like the current one, which is being measured primarily on the amount of money raised, it’s obviously expedient to keep refining your target: The more you narrow your audience, the higher your response rate (every mailing helps identify a more and more demographically precise group of knee-jerk contributors), making your campaign appear to have great momentum, if, also, at the same time, making you, quite likely, less and less electable.