Using a bifurcated mail program to reach Election Day and early voters

The conventional wisdom in the Kansas City media was that Kansas Sen. Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) and U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) faced uphill battles holding onto their seats in the Democratic wave of 2008.

Their problems were similar, but the political strategy employed in the neighboring states couldn’t have been more different before Election Day. We crossed state lines with a novel mail strategy that had rarely, if ever, been employed in either state—and never on such a large scale.

The Kansas City area media believed the races would respectively be “competitive” and some of “the hottest” in the country. We won both campaigns by significant margins because of hard working campaign volunteers and our mail strategy that reached more of our voters in a cheaper, more targeted way.

To win these races, Axiom Strategies employed a bifurcated mail program that separated voter universes into early/advance voters and Election Day voters. The messaging components in the two universes were similar, but the more advanced targeting method allowed us to reach more voters for less money.

By separating the two universes our campaigns targeted voters more effectively by following their progress through the system, removing those who had already voted and pursuing the voters we knew would support Lynn and Graves on Election Day.

The Strategy

Three steps were employed in both Julia Lynn and Sam Graves’ races.

First, the campaign collected as much voter data as possible through volunteer work and paid IDs. Second, Axiom Strategies developed a mail plan that separated early voters and messages from Election Day voters. Third, Axiom integrated volunteer and paid voter ID’s into two discrete universes to conserve resources and avoid overlap and waste.

The first step of the strategy is done by the hard work of the campaign. Whether it’s walking neighborhoods, holding phone banks or paying for voter data, the campaign collects as much voter ID data as possible and incorporates it in a master database.

Second, while the voter ID program was ongoing, we spent our time developing mail plans for each district. The districts presented a unique challenge in that each had different rules for absentee/early voting. It was essential to understand the key dates and design a program that would hit the right voter at the right time.

Finally, the volunteer and phone data was integrated into our mail plans for both campaigns. One of the common complaints about direct mail programs is that it doesn’t incorporate volunteer and paid ID data that is collected through the course of a the campaign and, many times, simply ignores it. The result is wasted time and money, both for the ID program and for mail that misses its target.

How the Strategy Applied to the Races:
Julia Lynn for Kansas Senate

Julia Lynn was appointed to her Kansas Senate seat after longtime Sen. Kay O’Connor resigned in November 2006. A political novice who had never before held office, Lynn faced a tough 2008 election challenge from Republican-turned-Democrat Ron Wimmer. Wimmer, the former 14-year Olathe school superintendent had strong name ID—Julia Lynn didn’t. Wimmer had an established fundraising base—Julia Lynn didn’t.

Sen. Lynn came to me late in 2007 and asked me to run her campaign. I agreed, and told Senator Lynn that she needed a plan that would drive as many Republicans to the polls as possible: specifically, friendly Republicans that agreed with her low-tax, pro-life and pro-business message. Our plan was to separate our mail universes into early and Election Day voters, driving Lynn-friendly voters to the polls and ignoring pro-Wimmer voters.

Our strategy benefited from outside help. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) was dedicating signifi ant resources to drive up Republican early voter turnout in Johnson County. Roberts’ efforts increased the number of early voters in Kansas from 245,827 in 2004 to 464,922 in 2008—an increase of over 16.5 percent.

In Kansas, voters can vote early by mail or in-person 20 days from Election Day. Voters in the 9th Senate District could vote by mail or in-person at a Johnson County polling location until noon on November 3, 2008. On October 15, those who applied to vote early would be mailed their ballots and those who wanted to vote in person at the election headquarters in Johnson County could do so.

When October 15 hit, the Kansas secretary of state e-mailed the list of Kansas Senate District 9 voters who requested an advanced ballot by mail to the campaign. By this date, we had already mailed five different pieces targeting likely Republican voters, pro-Lynn voters, undecided voters and anticipated early voters. We mailed a sixth piece of mail to confirmed advance voters.

The second half of the strategy targeted voters who had not voted in person, had not mailed in their ballot or whom we identified as Election Day voters through our data collection. In all, we mailed eight pieces from September 29 to October 30.

The entire operation rested on the efforts of a large grassroots and voter ID program. Early in the campaign, Lynn and her dedicated army of volunteers took to the streets. The campaign identified thousands of voters and housed the information in a database that was later integrated into the mail program.

Throughout this process we chased ID’d voters with live calls and autodials. Wimmer’s team didn’t know what hit them. The campaign budgeted $100,000 for mail and phones. We came in under budget spending approximately $92,000.

The plan worked. Julia Lynn won by a comfortable 3,881-vote margin, defeating her opponent by 10 points. What the prevailing wisdom predicted to be a highly competitive race turned into a blowout.

Graves for U.S. Congress

Sam Graves, after defeating Democrat Steve Danner in 2000, had easily won his three subsequent reelection bids. The popular farmer and former state senator enjoyed high approval numbers, but in the battleground state of Missouri, nothing was truly safe. In 2008, as an incumbent Republican and a stalwart Bush supporter, Graves faced a strong headwind in a district that for years has been the swing congressional seat in one of the biggest battleground states in the country. This time the DCCC recruited popular former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes in a race The Washington Post predicted would be “one of the premier congressional races in the country.”

We immediately began to aggressively raise money, research Barnes’ checkered record as the Mayor of Kansas City and capture voter data from massive phonebanks and paid ID calls.

Unlike Kansas, registered voters in Missouri can vote absentee six weeks from Election Day, but must state a qualified reason for voting early. That qualification made targeting more difficult and reduced the available pool of advance voters.

Regardless, we knew we had to control the mail, work harder at identifying voters and incorporate the data into our program to overcome our fundraising disadvantage.

We decided to target two different universes: One universe consisted of Election Day voters that we would mail with a typical election year program—five pieces per voter.
The second universe consisted of likely Republican and independent voters who were identified as probable absentee voters and added in a oversampling of seniors and nursing home voters who typically have election officials come on site to help them cast votes. Starting eight weeks out, on September 9, we began rolling out our first mail-piece in the race, targeting likely absentee voters to tell them about Graves’ leadership and strong Missouri values.

Those targets received a mail piece within two days of requesting an absentee ballot. Through our phone operations, we were able to identify thousands more likely absentee voters.

Because of the large window in Missouri’s absentee voting laws, we constantly hit those identified as likely Republican voters, following them all the way to the ballot box. In all, Graves for Congress sent out 10 pieces—five to Election Day voters, five to targeted
absentee voters.

Despite being outspent by Kay Barnes $2,760,156 to $2,592,443, Sam Graves crushed the former mayor by 22 points in a year that saw Democrats gain seats across the country. What was the difference in this race? There were many factors, but our more sophisticated targeting allowed us to drive our voters to the ballot box more easily and maximize the value of every dollar we spent.

This race went from “one of the premier congressional races in the country” to a Democratic flogging of epic proportions.

Conclusion

Separating mail universes into Election Day voters and early voters is the future of direct mail campaigns. Direct mail’s ability to accommodate a changing environment, marked most significantly by increases in early voting, will be essential if it is going to survive as a premier communications medium for campaigns.

The strategy had its risks. By targeting more and smaller groups and committing significant resources to voter ID efforts, there is a large outlay to get the program moving early. My belief, that these efforts would be vindicated by the results, was eventually confirmed. I expect similar programs to become more common in the future. But right now, when most campaigns are reluctant to dedicate resources to an unconventional strategy, is when the advantage is most significant.

Campaigns must always adapt to changing technologies and voting patterns or risk being left high and dry on Election Day. The successes of state Sen. Lynn’s and Rep. Graves’ campaigns are two examples where a new strategy with strong implementation led to cost savings and higher vote margins.

But like any campaign, success ultimately lies in the hard work of the candidate. Both Lynn and Graves worked hard to raise money and earn credibility to receive the voters’ endorsement. We, along with the campaign team, were able to capitalize on their efforts by reaching more voters with a specific message when they wanted to receive it; and ultimately delivering victory.

Jeff Roe is the principal and founder of Axiom Strategies, a general consulting and direct mail firm based in Kansas City, Missouri with offices in Washington, D.C. The firm has managed and executed direct mail strategies in campaigns ranging from city council to the presidency of the United States.