McGovern Campaign Marked Beginning Of Direct Mail

All this week, we're looking at the political tools presidential campaigns bring out in election years. Today, Audie Cornish speaks with two pioneers of direct mail. Morris Dees was the force behind the direct mail efforts of Senator George McGovern's campaign in 1971-1972. The campaign brought in millions thanks to hundreds of thousands of small donors reached through direct mail. We also hear from Richard Viguerie, who has been nicknamed a "funding father" of the conservative movement. He was a pioneer of the donor list, which is considered gold to campaigns today.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All this week we're rooting around in the election year toolbox, looking at the go-to tactics of the modern campaign and the stories behind them. Today: direct mail. Depending on where you live, you might be suffering from a blizzard of letters, brochures, and pleas for donations. Well, you can look back to the early '70s to find one of the fundraising letters that first turned direct mail into a campaign must.

MORRIS DEES: The letter was dated January 15, 1971 and it started off: My Dear Friend, you're one of a number of people whose help I'm asking in the most important effort any American can undertake....

CORNISH: This is Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also ran the direct mail campaign for Democrat George McGovern's '72 presidential run. Now, Dees had run a mail order business selling books. He had a chance to meet the South Dakota senator and offered to help out.

McGovern, he said, wanted to write a little letter announcing his candidacy.

DEES: They showed me a draft, one page letter that announced his candidacy and said he was opposed to the war. And it was just a nice well-written letter. And I said, well, hey fellas, how you all going to fund this campaign? And they said, well, we got, you know, some wealthy donors who are going to kick in some money throughout the country. I said, well, why don't we take this letter you're fixing to send out announcing your campaign, and let me draft a fundraising pitch in it? And they said OK.

CORNISH: Dees came back with a 7-page letter that ended in a request for money. Campaign advisors told him he was crazy - who's going to read seven pages? They sent it back with edits.

DEES: You know, I guess I'm a little bit independent and stubborn.

(LAUGHTER)

DEES: And so, I took the original letter we had written - and they'd made some good corrections. And we got the list that McGovern wanted to mail, which is basically his friends and neighbors and voters in South Dakota. And I added to it some selected names from people who liked to give to things like the ACLU donor list at the time - which wasn't really big - the progressive and liberal magazines, like Psychology Today, and things like that at the time.

And we got another two or 300,000 names and to test those lists - we didn't mail the whole list - we tested segments of them and mailed the original package. And I used U.S. Senate letterhead and U.S. Senate envelops, which is - I think our campaign abolished that approach.

CORNISH: Yeah, that's not allowed now.

(LAUGHTER)

DEES: No, not allowed anymore but we did then because obviously being a marketer, I wanted it to come from the best source possible.

CORNISH: It was just the start of what would turn out to be a massive direct mail effort. Fifteen million pieces of mail over the course of the general election and nearly as many millions in donations came back, in part because of the message.

DEES: It's written in short sentences and it lays out very carefully all the issues America was facing at the time - poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, poor education system, the war itself which was a real crisis.

CORNISH: If McGovern's opposition to the Vietnam War was the centerpiece of his mailings, similar conservative efforts were also driven by passionately-held positions, such as anti-communism.

Political consultant Richard Viguerie has been nicknamed the funding father of the conservative movement because of his early work in direct mail.

RICHARD VIGUERIE: Candidates who have strong views, well thought out views on the right or the left, are going to be able to attract more small donors than candidates who are less controversial, if you would, who are less outspoken, who are in the mushy middle, so to speak.

CORNISH: Richard Viguerie says early conservative mailings brought in more than money. They helped the conservative movement develop a donor list that paid off for decades.

VIGUERIE: No one had reached out to hundreds of thousands and even millions, and tens of millions of Americans at the grassroots level and asked them to get involved. And this was how conservative organizations developed. We went around the microphones of the country of the mainstream media, and went right into people's homes.

CORNISH: Now, you may wonder on your walk to the trash bin glancing through the glossy political mailings, who reads this stuff? Back then, Richard Viguerie says, everybody.

VIGUERIE: The main reason they stood out in the mail in those days was because that was the only political mail they received. Nobody was really using direct mail politically, ideologically. And most money was raised with fundraising dinners, receptions, the proverbial backroom, smoke-filled room. People would, you know, write large checks. And when a political letter arrived in the mail that was the only one they had gotten that day, that week, that month, and so it stood out.

CORNISH: Ironically, these days, the decline in paper mail means that those campaign letters still stand out. But candidates already have an eye on the next big campaign tool: your cell phone. We'll get the story on mobile text message donations tomorrow.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.