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.
New York’s coverage of Campaign 2004
The methodology is really key. Or the novelty of the method. Successful target-marketing methods are always—almost immediately—widely imitated. Response rates inevitably fall, and the targeting method becomes less, well, targeted (you have to approach more people in order to get the same total number of responses). But the first use of a new marketing strategy can be quite amazing—and distorting. The people you target pay too much attention; they respond unnaturally.
The Dean campaign, everyone knows, has been made possible by the Internet. The campaign is a pure response-rate phenomenon. By being the first presidential candidate to deftly and efficiently access interest groups assembled through the Internet—a method first demonstrated by liberal groups like moveon.org—Dean has assembled a financing basis that threatens to swamp his competitors.
The campaign has even made its ability to instantly raise money through its Internet method something of a sporting event. On occasions when the president has held one of his fabled (and traditional) many-thousands-a-plate dinners, the Dean campaign has accepted the challenge and raised as much with an Internet plea.
The Internet—which has still not revealed how it will ever reliably produce profits for the commercial sector—turns out to be a remarkable political money machine. A goose laying golden liberal eggs.
For marketers, the promise of the Internet was that it would be some next-stage, even ultimate, precision prospect-targeting technology. From under the masses of the disinclined and apathetic and undermotivated, you’d be able to home in on exactly those people who were predisposed and energetic and full of passionate intensity.
For the politically minded, on the other hand, the Internet was supposed to represent some new, striking, paradigm-shifting democratization of the political process. Open access. Political peer to political peer. Reaching over the heads of the biased and conventional-wisdom-spouting media—and without the prohibitive cost of 30-second spots or of the direct mail that had once worked so cleverly and economically for George McGovern (and thousands of candidates since)—to the real people.
This populist fantasy assumes, of course, that Internet behavior mirrors real-life behavior—that the Internet is some great mall of ordinary, uninformed, and uninterested zhlubs who have just been more efficiently organized and, by the wonders of the medium, happily politicized. In fact, the Internet, for political if not commercial causes, turns out to be a way to efficiently reach people whose very engagement (even overengagement) separates them most from ordinary zhlubby citizens.
Indeed, anyone who is regularly in touch with people who respond instantly and passionately over the Internet knows they are not like you and me.
This is the most worrisome point. Not that the Dean campaign is based around policies that are too liberal, but that it is based around people who are too engaged. Too happy to be involved. Too emotionally joined at the hip.
Too convinced of their own specialness—in turn imbuing the campaign itself with an exaggerated sense of uniqueness.
Now, the Dean people tell you that the Dean dream will spread (that he is really quite middle-of-the-road, even) and that you have to run a successful primary campaign one way and then change the way you run your campaign for the general election.
But I honestly don’t think that’s really what anyone believes. Rather, I think that what’s going on has to do with a bit of marketing mythology known as the tipping-point thing.
In this model, there is a beginning of something, a glorious, random coming-together creating an event whose very spontaneity and unexpectedness provokes other events. The thing spreads; critical mass is reached. It tips into popular acceptance. Even the apathetic—otherwise known as the independent voters—tip with it.
People less inclined to drink the Kool-Aid would more reasonably argue that this is balderdash. That the tipping-point blah-blah is just a misunderstanding of the workings of a response-rate algorithm. By dint of good organization and clever methodology, you penetrate a pre-selected group. The high response of that group (the early adopters) catalyzes the responses of a series of like-minded groups. All of whom respond at exaggerated rates until the market is sated. At this point, you have to either reinspire your base through new products or new marketing schemes or expand your base through broader distribution and pricing.
Of course, if you’ve really, really done your job well—which the Deanites seem to be doing—your core group remains dedicated to your product precisely because it has idiosyncrasies and an exclusiveness that keep it from the mass market.
“They’ve revolutionized the political process with this campaign,” said Lester Wunderman, one of the fathers of direct mail, about the McGovernites, two months before disaster befell the campaign. “You see, direct mail is essentially a populist medium. Put it to work the way they have and you have really created participatory democracy on a level that was never before contemplated. And because it opens up the possibility for real dialogue—in a way that television can never do—it’s a twentieth-century hustings.”