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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Democratic direct-mail guru says we must "radically rethink" advertising

Welcome To Message Monday!


I found an interesting theory about how we should radically rethink how we do political advertising. It comes from longtime Democratic media consultant and direct-mail guru Hal Malchow.  Malchow’s idea was featured in a story in Politico Weekend, which always has fascinating things on offer.  I don’t entirely agree with his thesis, but it is definitely worth taking a look at.


Malchow, who passed away last month, helped to pioneer the specialty of direct mail in political campaigns.  He oversaw mail programs for more than 30 Senators and five Democratic presidential nominees and built one of the country’s largest voter-contact businesses.  So he knows something about how it’s done.


Malchow’s thesis is this:  In today’s highly polarized world, where many people identify with one party or the other, focusing on a candidate is obsolete. 


“90% of voters are choosing parties, yet…almost 100% of our ad dollars are spent on candidate choice.  The decision driving 9 out of 10 votes is not being addressed at all.”


He says that ad campaigns should instead promote the Democratic Party itself, “particularly at moments when news events might help it win new adherents, such as after a mass shooting.” This is a point when GOP voters might be open to reconsidering their allegiance to that party.


Yes, But…Two Problems


The idea that we should align ourselves with key policies that elicit a strong positive reaction from voters makes sense to me.  Doing so with a timely news hook also makes sense. 


However, two problems.


One, most people are NOT identified with parties. 


This is probably the # 1 most-overlooked fact in American politics.  Nationally and locally, more people today identify as independent than as either Democrat or Republican.  There is widespread revulsion toward BOTH parties.  Polls avoid this issue by airily lumping what they call “Democratic-leaning” independents in with Democrats, and never addressing the differences between the two.


That being said, “independent” today does not mean the same thing as the “swing voter” of old.  An “independent” voter will often prefer one side or the other on issues, though they don’t personally identify with that party. Though they may violently disagree with some of the things their side does or dislike their candidate, they are more likely to not vote in a given race than to vote for someone from the “other side.”


Two, advertising a political party assumes people know or will believe what you say the party stands for.  For Democrats in particular, I don’t think that assumption holds water, though at present I imagine most people at least know that Democrats support women's right to abortion.


When you say “Democrat,” are you speaking of the neoliberal elite, “incremental change” mainstream?  Or the socialist-leaning, tax-the-rich, climate-crisis faction?   Some Democrats strongly support taxing the rich, for example.  Others consistently vote against that idea, though quietly. Democrats haven't made this happen when they had the chance in recent years.


Parties not so much – but positions on issues, YES


Malchow quit the biz in 2010, partly because, as he said, “the campaign dialog has become increasingly disconnected from the real problems people face.” 


His research yielded one central insight: that voters respond better to direct mail with dispassionate appeals from official-looking sources than glossy, colorful materials that evoke advertising.


Malchow includes a draft of a potential script that shows competing Democratic and Republican congressional candidates and their positions on straightforward policy questions like “Do you support raising taxes on people making more than $400,000 per year?”   Most people support that, by the way.


The script ends with “Now it’s your turn to choose. Vote.”  There’s no judgment about the candidate’s views, no recommendation on which one is better. If appropriately targeted to voters who do not know much about the candidates or parties but are more likely to agree with the Democrat, Malchow argues, such an ad should help generate votes.


Here I agree 100%. 


I hope we see some candidates taking Malchow’s advice this fall!


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