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Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon (24 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 24 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

Liberals fully woke up to the power of political direct mail on November 7, 1980—the day Ronald Reagan was elected president and the GOP captured the Senate.  Conservatives would no longer have the use of this Morris Dees“secret weapon” to themselves.  It was no longer a secret.

In fact, a liberal entrepreneur had already used direct mail to defeat the Democratic establishment and give the party’s 1972 presidential nomination to a senator from a small state, who rode a populist crusade to get his party’s nomination but then lost disastrously in November against the other party’s ruthless sitting president.

Does this sound like a repeat of the 1964 Goldwater campaign?  Yes, indeed—if you just change the party to the Democrats and the ideology to liberalism.  We interviewed the architect of that pivotal campaign to learn some valuable lessons for conservatives.

Liberals Wake Up

The main theme of this book is how conservatives used new and alternative media to take power in America.  A secondary theme, beyond that, is how the use of new and alternative media has changed all of American politics, Right and Left. 

Regarding direct mail, The Viguerie Company had a decade’s head start in using the mailbox to build a political movement.  Liberals were caught asleep at the wheel, and it cost them dearly.  The exact moment when they were jolted awake was the evening of November 7, 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and the GOP captured the Senate.  The New Right barbarians had captured Washington largely with direct mail as their principal weapon.  Thereafter, the liberals pursued direct mail with dedication and marketing smarts.  Thanks in large part to the people we interviewed for this chapter, they have now leveled that particular playing field.  In our considered opinion, they have probably even surpassed conservatives in the effective use of direct mail. 

Mind you, the Democrats are hopelessly behind the Republicans in party use of direct mail, but that’s because of the Democrats’ long-standing and disastrous dependence on labor unions and big special-interest donors.  When it comes to independent liberal causes – the environmental, pro-choice, consumer watchdog, civil rights, and other groups – the liberals are definitely no slouches.

For conservatives, the first massive, nationwide, grassroots fundraising effort involved the presidential campaign of a senator from a small state, basically an outsider within his party who was too honest and blunt for his own good, who rode a populist crusade to get his party’s nomination but then lost disastrously in November against the other party’s ruthless sitting president.  Now change the year from 1964 to 1972 and that’s exactly what happened on the Left, too.  Senator George McGovern of South Dakota was the liberals’ counterpart to Barry Goldwater, and his nemesis – Richard Nixon – was the liberals’ equivalent to Goldwater’s nemesis, LBJ.  McGovern used direct mail to finance his campaign and in the process changed liberal and Democratic politics in America as surely as Goldwater’s campaign had changed conservative and Republican politics in America.  So, let’s begin with that story.

Morris Dees plays a fast one on George McGovern

Morris Dees, a poor boy from the Alabama cotton fields (don’t get him started on that!), raised money with his partner Millard Fuller (later the founder and president of Habitat for Humanity) to get through college.  They obtained a list of their fellow students’ birth dates during the school year, then wrote to their parents: Just send us a check and we will deliver your son or daughter a birthday cake from the local bakery.  From that humble beginning, the ’Bama Birthday Cake Service, Dees and Fuller built a direct mail empire in the South.  As Dees told us, “When I graduated from the University of Alabama with a law degree five years later, I had a Ph.D. in direct mail!”  From 1960 to 1970 Dees was involved in his direct mail business as well as a civil rights law practice, but the law always remained his first love.  So at a still-early age the two partners sold their direct mail business and Dees started the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dees had no particular interest in national politics, but in 1970, on a trip to Indiana to conduct legal research for a case, he found himself at a gathering where George McGovern was the speaker.  McGovern was considering running for the Democratic presidential nomination, but polls at this time showed that he had only 1 percent support, and Dees hardly knew who he was.  When Dees was introduced to McGovern after the speech, the senator asked what field of work he was in, and Dees mentioned the law center and his direct mail background.  McGovern asked for Dees’ telephone number and jotted it down.

Unbeknownst to Dees, several years earlier Senator McGovern had asked Richard Viguerie to raise money for him by direct mail for his 1968 Senate campaign.  Viguerie had politely declined, citing their ideological differences on virtually every issue.  Apparently McGovern was still looking for direct mail help, for six months after that speech in Indiana he called Morris Dees and said: “I want to write a letter to announce my presidential campaign.  Would you handle it for me?”  “He really had not heard of me or from me or anything,” says Dees.  “He just kept good notes, I guess.  So I was kind of flattered.”

Dees flew to Washington and sat down with the senator and Gary Hart, his campaign manager.  They presented Dees with a one-page announcement letter (no fundraising) they had written.  “It was just awful!” Dees told us.  “And it was on red, white, and blue stationery!”  The two politicians obviously had very little understanding of direct mail, and they confused Dees’ role with that of a printer who would just take the letter and get it out.  Instead Dees asked for a batch of McGovern’s speeches and brochures so he could learn what the senator was about, and he retired to his hotel room to write a real letter.  Then he flew to New York to get the help of direct mail writer Tom Collins, and finally they had a seven-page letter for Dees to give to McGovern and Hart.

The culture clash between politicians and marketer continued.  (This happens all the time on the Right, too.)  Dees explained that as long as they were going to spend money sending out a letter, they should raise money with it.  And he explained that a longer letter would almost always draw better than a short one.  They weren’t convinced.  They gave the letter to Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and former Kennedy speechwriter Richard Wade for a critique.  When it came back from the “brain trust” it was again one page long. 

Dees was in a quandary.  He knew the one-pager wouldn’t work.  He knew his would.  “So I didn’t use the letter that McGovern had given me back with his approval.  I sent my letter.  I figured, I didn’t work for McGovern, you know.  He couldn’t fire me.  I was just a volunteer.”

“Why did I do it?” Dees asks himself.  “I’m not sure.  Maybe it was because everyone I had seen in Washington was so timid around politicians, acting as if senators were gods.  Maybe I just wanted to prove the Beltway crowd wrong.”

Back home in Alabama, Dees heard nothing for a couple of days.  Then he got a phone call from McGovern assistant Pat Donovan: “The senator wants to see you right now!”  With the inevitable return of bad-address letters, they had found out which letter Dees sent.  “I’m in the middle of a case, so I’ll be there in a few days,” Dees replied.  He wanted time for the responses to the letter to start coming in.

“Well, money started pouring in,” Dees recalls.  “When they called me again, it was in a voice that had totally changed.  ‘Oooooh boooys!  C’mon up!’”

That first letter had a phenomenal 15-percent response rate.  Gary Hart, in his campaign memoirs, wrote: “In the first three weeks of February we received $305,000.  This money financed the campaign through the middle of 1971…. This was unquestionably the first financial turning point of our campaign.  I cannot imagine surviving politically through 1971 under the financial restrictions of 1970.”

Dees was asked to be the campaign’s fundraiser, and he accepted.  He conducted a fundraising campaign with many innovations, among them a special club for donors who would pledge monthly contributions – a great success.  “The club idea itself proves,” says Dees, “that Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he observed almost 150 years ago that America was a nation of joiners.”

“The entire direct mail program during the race for the nomination brought in $4,850,000,” Hart wrote.  “After subtracting costs of approximately $650,000, the net amount made available to the campaign was $4.2 million.” 

With that, Dees told us, “we got the nomination away from all the powers to beat – Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, ‘Scoop’ Jackson … everybody.  Direct mail gave people a chance to vote with their checkbooks.”

As for the national campaign that followed: “We raised $26 million to $27 million for McGovern, netting about $20 million.  And those are 1972 dollars.  In today’s dollars it would be like netting $100 million easy, which is a lot of money.”  And it produced a list of 600,000 contributors.

Dees told us:

We ended with a surplus, not a deficit.  We paid back every single loan everybody made us.  And I had about 15 wealthy people who trusted me after they saw results, and if I needed a million dollars to mail a lot of mail, I just called ’em up, got a hundred thousand from each, and paid ’em all back when the money came in.  And that was possible back then because you didn’t have any restrictions on campaign funds except for corporate contributions. 

Gary Hart showed unabashed appreciation in his memoirs: “In the judgment of many, including myself, Morris was one of the very few bona fide geniuses involved in the McGovern campaign and, on more than one occasion, probably its savior.”

McGovern showed his appreciation in two ways.  He let Dees use the 600,000 names for as long as he wanted, to raise money for Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center.  And he signed letters himself for that effort.  Dees went on, politically, to be Jimmy Carter’s fundraiser in 1976, using direct mail to defeat George Wallace in the pivotal Florida primary.  And, on the personal side, he used direct mail to turn his Southern Poverty Law Center into one of the nation’s top success stories in ideological nonprofit fundraising.  Today it has a half-million donors.  “There would be no Southern Poverty Law Center without direct mail,” Dees says without hesitation.

George Wallace, by the way, had also asked Morris Dees to be his fundraiser, offering him a million dollars to take the job.  Dees declined because of their differences on civil rights, but introduced Wallace to the person he thought should do the job – Richard Viguerie.  Viguerie at first declined, considering Wallace too liberal for his tastes.  (“I knew what you meant by that,” Dees recalls today, “because Wallace was a liberal.  He was a real populist liberal.”)  But then Viguerie, seeing an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench in the Democratic Party’s machinery, came to agreement with Wallace, and the hundreds of thousands of names of Wallace contributors he amassed were later used to help conservative Republicans take over the South.  Morris Dees is well aware of the irony in that turn of events.


America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  22. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  23. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
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