Building a movement vs. trashing your opponent

When I started learning about direct marketing in 1961, direct mail was the second largest form of advertising, second only to television. Today, in 2014, direct mail is still the second largest form of advertising.

Recent criticism in The Daily Caller and The Washington Post of Tea Party movement organizations and their direct-mail fundraising brings to mind a debate I thought was settled with the election of Ronald Reagan back in 1980.

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As the pioneer of applying commercial direct marketing to political and ideological campaigns (I founded my company in January of 1965) I was criticized regularly by establishment “political pros and media” if a project or mailing didn’t return an immediate profit for one of the upstart conservative organizations or candidates for which we worked.

These so-called “political pros” were especially quick to complain if the funds raised were plowed back into more mailings instead of other campaign activities, such as negative advertising on TV.

What the establishment’s media and professional political class then (and now) don’t seem to grasp is that direct mail is more than just a fundraising tool. Direct mail is the first, and most long-lived, form of alternative media, and its value and reach extend far beyond raising money.

Direct mail is advertising, but it is also a form of alternative media that educates voters, organizes activists to pass or defeat legislation and identifies favorable voters and supporters — and yes, it raises money, too.

My experience in building the New Right movement that led the way in Ronald Reagan’s insurgent 1976 campaign against establishment Republican President Gerald R. Ford and his successful 1980 campaign against Democratic President Jimmy Carter illustrates the power of direct mail as a form of media, not just a fundraising technique.

One success story this strategic thinking engendered was a campaign we conducted opposing “common situs picketing” legislation for the National Right to Work Committee.

Common situs picketing, which was and is illegal, would allow a disagreement with a small union to shut down an entire job site; it was a long-sought goal of Big Labor.

In 1975 Ford promised William Usery, his secretary of Labor, and George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, that if Congress sent him the bill he would sign it. The National Right to Work Committee resolved to fight the bill and pressure Ford to reverse course on signing it. They hired our company to mount the campaign, and at $0.25 each, we mailed
4 million letters for $1 million.

National Right to Work got back $700,000 in contributions, which meant that they lost $300,000 on the mailing, a substantial sum of money. But a friend of mine, John Carlson, who worked in Ford’s press operation, later told me the administration got 700,000-plus cards, letters and phone calls demanding the president veto the common situs picketing bill.

In a move that shocked Big Labor to its core, Ford broke his promise and vetoed the bill.

Reed Larson, who headed National Right to Work at the time, understood his goal was to defeat the legislation, not just raise money for next quarter’s budget. National Right to Work also added 90,000 new donors to its files that, over time, probably gave tens of millions of dollars to the organization and more than repaid the $300,000 investment in the common situs mailing.

Direct mail helped build all of the early organizations of today’s conservative movement and helped elect many of the stars of the New Right, from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) to an obscure baby doctor from Lake Jackson, Texas, named Ron Paul to, yes, Reagan, who kept his 1976 campaign alive through grassroots activism and a list of some 250,000 mostly small donors acquired through direct mail.

To this day almost all national conservative organizations depend on direct marketing (postal mail and the Internet) to supply most of their money. Direct mail built the conservative movement, and without it, there would be no conservative movement worthy of the name. 

Perhaps establishment political consultants question the utility of direct mail out of self-interest because they prefer to limit the use of direct mail and raise money to fund other campaign activities, like television advertising, that they receive a 15 percent commission on for placing.

More likely than financial self-interest is that the inside-the-Beltway political establishment is so intellectually and politically bankrupt it has nothing with which to build a movement. It only knows one way of winning campaigns: raising a lot of money and spending it on negative TV trashing the opponent.

The Tea Party movement organizations that The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post criticized for using “expensive” direct mail are building a movement, not just raising money to contribute to candidates or spend on TV campaigns.

The proof of the success of their strategy is clear from the results of the 2012 elections. Establishment candidates like Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George Allen in Virginia, Connie Mack in Florida and Linda Lingle in Hawaii ran typical establishment Republican “run a lot of negative TV” campaigns and were all defeated. 

Contrast those establishment defeats to the results achieved for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who had tens of millions of dollars spent against him by the GOP establishment for negative TV but won anyway because he, like Reagan in 1980, was the candidate with a movement behind him, a movement built in large measure through the alternative media of direct marketing. 

Viguerie is founder and chairman of American Target Advertising Inc., which uses computerized direct mail and online marketing to help build the conservative movement. His latest book is called Takeover: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win It.