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Mail consultants are pitching their services as a way to solve this cycle’s messaging conundrum: navigating Donald Trump’s polarizing effect on voters.
But consultants are grappling with how to go after the rest of the electorate, for instance, those who may not like Trump yet need something more to vote against their incumbent GOP officeholders.
“Do we put Trump’s face on a piece of mail or not,” asked Maren Hesla, a principal at Mission Control, a Democratic mail firm, during a recent C&E panel. “Do we lose people, or are they so incensed and so angry that they stare longer at something that has [Trump’s] physical image on it? That is an up-in-the-air question for us, but a really important one.”
With mobilization during a midterm typically a question of where to focus, Hesla said mail universes will be more expansive this cycle to match her side’s enthusiasm.
“We have never seen anything like this — you look at the turnout in Virginia, double what it has been in past gubernatorial elections, look at the Turnout in Alabama,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of races that are going to be mailing to people who have a turnout score of 30, 20 or even 15 [as opposed to 40]. This year they absolutely are” turnout targets.
In a fake news media environment, mail consultants also feel they can provide an edge to their clients.
“Because we have the ability to cite things, it is more credible,” Hesla said. “The ability to source whatever it is that you’re saying in the mail [piece] does, in fact, make it more credible to an electorate that is increasingly cynical and suspicious of anything that has to do with politics.”
Now, as digital has taken up more of the conversation, mail consultants have been arguing the case for their data, targeting and testing. But with the United States Postal Service backing them up with innovative new products, they may have a stronger case.
For instance, mail consultants for advocacy groups urging supporters to contact their member of Congress can outfit return envelopes with a tracking code, said Hesla. “As soon as it goes back into the mail stream, we know exactly who it is” who sent it.
Social pressure will also be an appealing tactic for both sides this cycle because of its ability to motivate turnout.
When it comes to social pressure, Laura Tamman of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Greenlight Media Strategies recommends the voter report card.
“The idea is to make them as neutral and official as possible,” she said, adding that primaries and specials are an ideal time to deploy these to motivate reluctant voters. “In those elections, the turnout mailer has a much bigger impact.”
As Republican consultants look to hold the line for their clients in November, GOP mail consultant Chris Russell warned there is a line that social pressure mailers can cross.
“There’s a chance you get a bad news story, there’s a chance you get criticism, are you OK with that?,” asked Russell.
It requires campaigns to be “super tight with your universe and you’re super tight with your targeting,” he said.
Russell recalled a campaign he worked in New York in 2016 where his Democratic opponent used a social pressure mailer that backfired. “They got killed on the front of the local newspaper for sending direct mail to someone saying, ‘Where are you, you haven’t voted in the last four years.’ You’re a bad Democrat basically.”
The daughter of the recipient brought the mailer to the local paper. “The reason why my dad hasn’t voted in four years is that he’s been dead for six,” the daughter told the paper, according to Russell, who runs Checkmate Strategies
“Your client sees that on the frontage you’re probably not going to be a mail firm for very long.”
Still, he advised not going with a soft touch if the campaign wants the tactic to work.
“You need to give them a sense of urgency,” he said. “Generally speaking the things that motivate people tend to be the darker emotions.”
Russell said mail consultants are moving away from using voter history, gender and party affiliation to score their universes and starting to “identify voters as individuals.”
He predicted for 2018: “You’re going to see smaller universes, but many more mailers within a mail plan, where you’re going to be looking to really target down to small groups who will make the difference.”