By ElectWomen Magazine Contributor, Dotty LeMieux – As a general and direct mail consultant in mostly “down ticket” races, my firm, GreenDog Campaigns, has created numerous pieces over the years, all tailored to the particular race and candidate. In doing these pieces, I have discovered (and learned from other consultants, both large and small) that there are certain recurring types of mail that are employed in most, if not all races.
As the number of permanent absentee voters increases (and in some areas it is now well over 50% of the total voting population), the use of targeted absentee mail is all the more critical, especially in the down ticket races. Even though many of the newer permanent absentee voters vote later in the election cycle, the savvy candidate is ready to capture the all important early voter with a message that resonates and catches the eye, before the voter casts her vote for Governor, President or State Senator and sticks the ballot in mail before even realizing there’s a race in your District.
List vendors can supply you the names of habitual early absentee voters if you are on a tight budget, or you can simply mail to all permanent absentee voters, or even all frequent voters, to capture the voters’ attention early.
You need to alert that voter to your election and your message. Make her aware that there is indeed a City Council election this year and you are the one to vote for. At GreenDog Campaigns, We have developed the “Absentee Alert” piece, which has proven quite effective in getting the attention of the early voter by reproducing the actual ballot with the candidate’s name enlarged as if the voter is looking through a powerful magnifying glass. (See example no. 1)
In a recent County Supervisor race, our candidate needed to get her message to the senior vote. She was the natural choice for seniors, as head of a senior service agency, but with all the National and State races on the ballot, we didn’t want those crucial voters to miss their own Supervisor race. So we created a piece we called “Remember when?” with a picture of children playing in autumn leaves, evoking images of a simpler time. (See example no. 2.)
Absentee mail must arrive no later than the day the absentee ballots hit, be graphically interesting and punchy. In the case of the senior piece sent above, we deliberately mailed more than a week early to our targeted audience, with a more general “Absentee Alert” piece sent to all other voters at the time the absentee ballots hit. This way we had a good chance of capturing the permanent absentee voter along with anyone who later requested an absentee ballot.
Sometimes a single issue defines the race, or you may want to associate your candidate with an issue that voters care about. To do this, we often use an arresting image of the issue on the front cover, so that the voter is prompted to open the piece to learn more. Often we do this by asking a question:
“Why are development interests desperate to stop (a Marin County Supervisor candidate)’s campaign?” (Issue was development versus open space protection.)
“Will (City) move forward…or stagnate..?” Change was in the air in this City Council race and the future of the City’s character was in question. (See example no. 3)
While not a question, this headline got the voters attention in a Northern California Supervisor race:
“Lake County deserves better” was a headline highlighting graphic images of derelict cars, flooding and giant potholes. (See example no. 4)
All these candidates were running against the establishment and all won, heralding change in their Districts.
Sometimes it is important to highlight some personal characteristics of your candidate, to introduce him to the voters. This is often an early piece, maybe used as your walking piece even before the filing period is over. In low budget campaigns, it is not always possible to print a separate biographical piece and the introduction is handled through a letter to voters inside an issues piece (as in the one above) or as part of an endorsement piece. “This is who I am and why all these people support my campaign.”
The important thing to remember about the use of direct mail is that it must be eye catching, speak in images more than words, and keep the text to simple bullets as much as possible. Stick to a theme that “brands” your candidate: “New Leadership” “Move forward” Protecting our health, environment and quality of life.” “Others promise, Mary Ann delivers.” (see example no. 5)
Once your candidate has gained some traction, you may want to highlight her endorsements. Who supports this candidate? People will look for known entities, well respected civic leaders, environmental organizations, Unions and their neighbors, in making their decision who to vote for.
We always try to use some familiar faces along with just folks to represent the breadth of our candidates’ support. Examples include the Congressperson for the area, State representatives, local business people, teachers, fire and police personnel and their professional organizations. (See example no. 6)
Nurses and teachers are extremely popular figures. Even more so than elected officials in some districts. It is important to know the district and know what organizations will win votes for your candidate. The Sierra Club is crucial in areas with a strong conservation ethic, but may not so important in farming communities. The Chamber of Commerce may resonate with voters in small cities and counties concerned about a declining economy but not mean much in highly urban surroundings.
Remember, the one with the most endorsements (and money) does not always win, where the issues matter more than personality and a strong grass roots campaign trumps perceived slickness.
Some endorsements you may not want. If you are running on an environmental platform, the Building Industry endorsement may raise eyebrows among your base. On the other hand, it may help identify you as a well rounded person who appeals to a broad spectrum of constituents. The most important thing is not to be seen as trying to be all things to all people. Your own integrity and commitments must come through, no matter who endorses you.
With the advent of digital printing, many campaigns are able to selectively reach voter with more personalized messages. In down ticket races, this can economically be accomplished by using a few guidelines for targeting votes. Once you have identified your voting universe, frequent voters in your particular district, you can think about delivering a message that will appeal to different types of voters.
If your district lends itself to a variety of discreet neighborhoods, it might be a good idea to send pieces tailored to each one, with a general overarching theme. For instance, in the Marin County Supervisor race, we sent three distinct pieces of mail, all having the same front, a stock photo of a neighborhood with white picket fences, to show that our candidate was protecting the character of our neighborhoods. On the back each one had a heading that characterized the particular neighborhood it was aimed at.
The piece we did in the Sonoma County Supervisor race aimed at Seniors was
an example of demographically targeted mail. You might also send a piece aimed at women, at students if you are aiming to turn out the vote among new voters, or pieces in Spanish or Chinese, if you live in an area high in ethnic minorities.Female candidates often send an appeal to women voters, emphasizing how they will work for women’s issues; this can be further broken down to target younger women, working women, moms, parents and so forth. The more competitive the race, the more targeting may be necessary to reach critical mass on election day.
In several races, we have sent mail just to Democrats, highlighting local Democratic leaders, Clubs and Unions. To Republicans and declines to state (independent) voters, we might vary the message slightly showing the candidates’ history of fiscal responsibility and support for local businesses.The main thing is not to tell a different story to each audience. Then you risk looking hypocritical or being a flip-flopper. But do know your audience and pick the part of your story that will resonate with that group, if any.
We are careful with anything negative at GreenDog Campaigns, but we don’t shy away from pointing out the shortcomings of our opponents. We do this most commonly through the use of comparison pieces. A simple chart listing the positions of the candidates on the issues can highlight your candidate’s strong points while informing the voter of the shortcomings of the opposition. This is especially important where you are running against an incumbent, asking the voter to fire him and hire your client. You need to provide a compelling argument for the switch.
We did this in the Lake County Supervisor race when we found out that, among other things, the incumbent was running his campaign out of his Supervisor office, a big no no. (See example no. 7) If you do this, document your sources. We use asterisks and footnotes, and we always use facts that are pertinent to the office being sought. We don’t care about personal failings unless those failings are pertinent. If the candidate is a born again evangelist and has been caught in a compromising situation with someone not his wife, that becomes relevant. Otherwise, stick to the performance in office, not in the bedroom, to make your argument.
All good direct mail shares certain characteristics. It’s visually arresting, depending mainly on pictures to tell the story. It uses short bulleted points that get the message across without a lot of verbiage. You can always use strong heads with a more detailed subheading for those who need a meatier message, but keep the bullets for the ones who tend to glance at the mail on their way from the mailbox to the garbage can.
Tout endorsements, use your top organizations and individuals up front, know your audience and the cardinal rule of all Direct Mail programs: K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid.
If you remember that, budget wisely (both time and money; the best mail in the world is useless if it reaches the voter the day after the election) and use professional graphic designers experienced in the nuances of campaign work, you should have strong clear convincing mail that will insure your message connects with the voters.
Dotty LeMieux, Founder GreenDog Campaigns
8 Willow Street
San Rafael CA 94901
Dotty LeMieux founded GreenDog Campaigns in 1998 and has maintained a steady 75% win rate for women, first time and challenger candidates. She also presents training programs in conjunction with National Women’s Political Caucus, the Democratic Party and other activist groups. Her articles have been published in campaign magazines and online, and she recently presented a nationally broadcast “Webinar” for Winning Campaigns Magazine on the subject of negative campaigning.