A highly targeted mail campaign helped Democrat Bev Perdue win a key Republican district in North Carolina

The formula had worked consistently since 1992, and the 2008 race seemed to be shaping up the same way. In May, Democrats nominated two-term Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a former Senate Appropriations chair who called New Bern, the birthplace of Pepsi cola, home. Her campaign touted her job as a public school teacher and her commitment to education. Following the May primary, most Democrats were con%uFB01dent.

A strange thing happened, though, along the I-85 corridor. Republicans nominated Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a moderate who had earned the respect, and envy, of Triangle progressives for pushing through light rail and even raising taxes to do it. He could compete for the urban/suburban vote that more conservative Republicans had historically lost to Democrats.

In a twist of fate, McCrory also bene%uFB01ted from Obama’s campaign for change, since he could position himself as the outsider running against an establishment that had been plagued by recent scandals. McCrory’s rhetoric began to echo that of the Obama campaign, calling for new leadership and a new direction. He accused Perdue of being too close to big donors who served on the Department of Transportation Board and had been accused of con%uFB02icts of interest.

By mid-summer, polls showed the race tightening and, by early fall, several had McCrory leading.

Enter Service Employees International Union (SEIU). North Carolina is one of the least union-friendly states in the country, with laws prohibiting collective bargaining by public employees and a history of brutal repression of union organizers. In May, though, the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) formally affiliated with SEIU, making it the largest public employees’ union in the South.

After years of serving as the whipping boys of state government, with few pay raises and reduced bene%uFB01ts, SEANC retaliated in the early part of this decade with hardball political tactics—attacking its opponents and heavily supporting candidates it considered friends. Now, with the backing of a national powerhouse, the union hoped to pursue an aggressive agenda for state workers. Its top legislative priority is to repeal the law that bans collective bargaining. Labor leaders know that it’s a tough %uFB01ght in the state’s relatively conservative legislature, but it will be an impossibility if the governor wielding the veto
pen is a Republican.

With Perdue’s numbers falling and McCrory’s spiking, SEIU jumped into the fray. It spent heavily with a contribution to the Democratic Party to boost the ground campaign, it joined an independent expenditure with the National Education Association and the Democratic Governor’s Association, and it put together its own direct mail campaign. By mid-September, the TV war was raging, with both sides pounding on each other and large sums of money being spent by independent expenditures. SEIU was looking for a way to make a serious and strategic impact on the race. Our polling from mid-summer showed a tight race, with Perdue leading McCrory 47 percent to 40 percent. But by Labor Day, new polls showed the race tied and some had McCrory leading.

Polling Suggests a Surprising Target: The State’s Rural West
SEIU originally wanted to focus a mail campaign in the Charlotte area. The Queen City was McCrory’s base and polling showed he held a large lead there. Perdue would have to cut into that margin substantially to win. In addition, other IEs and the Perdue campaign were spending heavily in that market. A targeted mail effort could support the television that was running.

However, as we delved into the crosstabs of the poll, a new target emerged: western North Carolina. The region was essentially tied, with McCrory holding a 1-point lead (44 percent to 43 percent) over Perdue. We also found that the region held the largest percentage of undecided voters (15 percent). And among unaffiliated voters, almost a third had yet to make up their minds. In addition, the voter %uFB01le revealed an efficient mail universe that %uFB01t the budget: 75,000 unaffiliated voters living in 62,000 house-holds in the western media markets.

We also knew McCrory needed a big win in western North Carolina. The region is overwhelmingly rural, white and conservative and has traditionally served as a base for Republicans. Every Republican who won statewide in recent years racked up large margins in the west. In 2000, the last time the governor’s race was open, Democrat Mike Easley lost the region when he was %uFB01rst elected governor.

A series of poll questions gave us a clear path to de%uFB01ne McCrory. As mayor of Charlotte, he had been in several scuffles with rural legislators over funding issues; he had supported diverting state transportation money from western North Carolina to fund light rail for Charlotte; he was too close to the Charlotte business community; and he took large sums of money from developers. On each question, the reaction of western voters was much stronger than the state as a whole, with at least 72 percent saying the issue discussed made them less likely to vote for McCrory.

What emerged was a picture of a big city mayor who had little understanding of the needs of rural citizens. While western North Carolinians are conservative, they are also %uFB01ercely independent and proud of their humble lifestyle. They would have no use for a governor who put the interests of urban areas before the interests of rural values.

So although Charlotte was the initial target, we felt strongly that unaffiliated voters in western North Carolina provided a better target for a mail campaign. As a narrowcast medium, direct mail works because it can move a very speci%uFB01c audience with a very speci%uFB01c message. The polling provided both the message, “Pat McCrory is a big city politician who does not care about rural areas,” and the target universe, 75,000 unaf%uFB01liated voters in western North Carolina who responded to that message.

We outlined our %uFB01ndings in an in-depth memo and presented it to SEIU. After a brief discussion, their staff agreed with our analysis. We settled on a %uFB01ve-piece mail plan that %uFB01 t the budget and was strong enough to impact the overall election result.

Creating Our Five-Piece Mail Program
We used the 11th Congressional District to target the mail. The district incorporates virtually all of the three media markets that serve western North Carolina. The district is 41 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican and 25 percent unaf%uFB01liated. The goal was to ensure that the unaf%uFB01liated voters who have traditionally voted Republican would give Perdue enough support that she could stay even with McCrory. Early voting in North Carolina started Oct. 16, almost three weeks before Election Day on Nov. 4. With the Obama ground machine in full force in the state, we needed to reach early voters before the %uFB01rst polls opened.

Analysts predicted that 30 to 50 percent of the people would vote prior to Election Day. We began dropping mail on Oct. 14 and continued every third business day until the Wednesday before the election. Armed with an effective message and a solid target of persuadable voters, we started out with a piece called “Fabric” that tapped into the region’s rural character. Focusing on the sentiment that the rural areas and small towns across North Carolina make up its foundation and character, we showed that McCrory, through his own words and actions, did not value or respect these aspects of the state. This piece set the stage for the rest of the mail program.

Voters in this region have a %uFB01rm belief in hard work and earning your keep, and the polling showed they didn’t take kindly to McCrory befriending and bene%uFB01ting from big business while mayor of Charlotte. So, the next two pieces provided a one-two punch that wrapped McCrory around the Charlotte business community. One was a straight-forward depiction of the more than $80,000 in campaign contributions he had taken from Charlotte developers. The other was an eye-popping piece called “Big Perks” that illustrated favors the business community had done for McCrory, including sending him to Paris free of charge.

Throughout the campaign, McCrory touted his light rail initiative as an example of his progressive approach to governing. However, in the rural mountains, people equate transportation funds with money for better roads to give them easier access to economic centers. So the fourth mailer highlighted McCrory’s attempt to divert state transportation funds to pay for Charlotte light rail even though the service would have no impact in western North Carolina.

The %uFB01nal piece we created argued that McCrory was more interested in helping developers than helping public schools. In an area where public schools have long suffered and development is often associated with second homes owned by out-of-state residents, education and overdevelopment topped the concerns of western voters. The mailer reinforced the idea that the mayor was out of sync with western North Carolina values.

The Results Were Overwhelming
When the votes were counted, the success of the program exceeded our expectations. Not only did Perdue win the 11th District, she won by more than 20,000 votes, by far the largest margin of any non-incumbent Democrat in a statewide race, and the largest margin for a Democrat in an open gubernatorial race in a generation. Her margin in the target area was twice as high as her margin in the state as a whole. She also received more votes than any other non-incumbent Democrat— including 2,288 more than Kay Hagan and 11,775 more than Obama/Biden, even though 1,354 and 3,906 more people voted in the U.S. Senate and presidential races, respectively.

The race between Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory was the closest governor’s race in the country. In a year of Democratic change, in a state that is changing demographically, a Republican gubernatorial candidate ironically emerged as the candidate of change. While this twist helped make McCrory competitive in much of the state, in western North Carolina, traditional values trumped change and a highly targeted mail program told that story to the people who cared.

Thomas Mills is president of Thomas Mills Communications, a Democratic direct mail and strategic consulting firm with offices in North Carolina and Washington, D.C.