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Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives

This is excerpt No. 18 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

The conservative movement as we’ve known it for the past 54 years would not exist without direct mail.  Talk radio, cable television, and the Internet have played valuable roles in expanding the power of the conservative America's Right Turnmovement, but they were johnny-come-latelys – they didn’t appear until the late 1980s and 1990s.  At that point the conservative movement had already elected Ronald Reagan as president and changed the face of the U.S. Congress.  A mature movement already existed in the 1980s that could take advantage of the new alternative media, but it was direct mail that created that movement and helped bring it to power.

In this excerpt (and the following four) we will explain why direct mail was so powerful – its unique advantages for a political movement shunned and disparaged by the mainstream media.

Why direct mail is so powerful for insurgents

Since the beginning of the conservative movement, the U.S. mail has been conservatives’ principal method of communication.  Even today, conservatives may get most of their political news through talk radio, cable television, and the Internet – an opportunity not enjoyed by previous generations of conservatives – but as of now [2004, our publication date], most activist communication between individual conservatives and their organizations and causes and candidates still takes place through the U.S. mail.  In time we expect the Internet to become the foremost media for activism, but at the present time that’s still a work in progress.

Direct mail offers many advantages to conservatives.  It:

  • * Helps to find the conservatives among more than 300,000,000 Americans.
  • * Informs conservatives as to which battles must be fought today, this week, or this month.
  • * Advises conservatives where conservative candidates are running and that they need help.
  • * Brings the conservative message to tens of millions of Americans who have never read any of the conservative periodicals or Web sites – people who are conservatives in their hearts but don’t realize it until they get a letter in the mail that catches their attention and awakens the conservative within.

Let’s face it – even today, for all the growth of conservative talk radio and cable television, establishment liberals remain the dominant force in mass media.  In the past two decades, conservatives have developed news outlets on cable and the Internet that now deny liberals their monopoly of mass media news.  And that’s a pivotal, dramatic change.  But for all these changes, direct mail remains the foremost communication tool for conservative activists.

Now let’s return to the years before the emergence of talk radio, cable news, and the Internet, with particular emphasis on the years leading to the election of Ronald Reagan as president.  During that era, conservatives thought of direct mail as our TV, radio, daily newspaper, and weekly magazine combined.  Let’s see how it worked to bring conservatism to power, under the radar of the liberal media.

Direct mail gave conservatives a way to bypass the liberal “gatekeepers” at the liberal mass media 

We’ve mentioned this before, and we will continue to emphasize it.  It is that important:  The liberal news anchors at the television networks and the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post were the “gatekeepers” of the news.  They decided what was news, and what wasn’t.  Conservative issues would not pass the test, and conservative leaders and organizations were news only when they could be ridiculed or otherwise used to liberal advantage.  

That sounds too conspiratorial to you?  David Keene, who was the long-time chairman of the American Conservative Union, gives an example from 1975, when he was working for Ronald Reagan’s campaign to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from Gerald Ford, who had become president as a result of Nixon’s resignation over Watergate.

“Herb Kaplow – who was with ABC, I believe – very early concluded that the Reagan challenge to Ford was real,” Keene recalls.  “He called me because we were good friends, and said he wanted to film something from the campaign and get it on the evening news.”

“I took him to Florida,” Keene continues, “and actually allowed him to attend and film what were usually termed ‘secret meetings.’  He was very appreciative of that.  But then he called me a few days later and said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s not going to appear.  My news desk says that the Reagan thing is not real – it’s not a story.’”

This is an interesting example of how a major conservative campaign was determined to be non-news by a gatekeeper even though an enterprising reporter had an inside scoop at what was going on.  But the story gets even more interesting.

Keene continues,

Several months later, Johnny Apple of the New York Times wrote a now-famous column in which he said, in effect, “The Reagan campaign is real.”  The next day Kaplow called me back and he says, “This is embarrassing, humiliating, but now that the New York Times has certified that the Reagan campaign is real, I’m going to be allowed to run a piece on it.”

I said, “Well, that footage is still good.”

He replied, “I know it is, but not only is the Reagan campaign real, this year the story is direct mail.  So what I need is footage of people opening mail!”

It would be hard to fabricate a more precise conspiracy tale of liberal gatekeepers at work.  There’s no need to fabricate conspiracy theories, though, when this is how the liberal news world really worked – and still does work, to a large extent.  And here was where direct mail played one of its most important roles.  Conservatives didn’t have to wait until the New York Times gave its imprimatur to know that the Reagan campaign was real.  They had found out, months earlier, when they opened their mail, and were busy at work making the Reagan campaign “real.”  In fact, it was all of their hard work under the selective radar of that “news” outlet that finally forced the Times to concede that the campaign existed and had to be taken seriously.

In short, direct mail was the conservatives’ vehicle to carry their message to the voters without going through the filter of the liberal-leaning news media.

Direct mail can bring a conservative candidate over the top to victory, by adding a critical 5 percent of the vote based on single-issue appeals 

Most competitive races for the House, Senate, or presidency are won or lost with somewhere between 45 percent and 55 percent of the vote.  A switch of 1 percent to 5 percent of the vote – or getting an additional 1 percent to 5 percent of voters to the polls – can turn an election.

Single-issue direct mail can make that difference.

For years conservatives dominated the issues, but lacked access to the country’s microphones.  So for years conservatives lost elections, often having secured somewhere between 45 percent and 49 percent of the vote – tantalizingly close, but not enough.  Then the New Right leaders said, “We’re not going to talk only about the economy anymore.  We’re going to talk about issues like abortion and pornography and taxes and national defense.”  Of the people likely to vote for the Democratic candidate, 1, 2, or 3 percent could be induced to switch over (and contribute $10 or $20) because of one issue – busing, prayer in the schools, whatever.

The New Right began working for the people concerned with those issues, getting the resources they needed to communicate with the country.  And the New Right got these single-issue leaders to increasingly think in terms of coalitions – scratching each other’s backs.  And in election after election, single-issue voters made the difference, propelling conservative candidates to victory.

With the New Right’s success in using single issues came howls of indignation, of course, from the Left.  But it was selective indignation.  Conservatives were merely copying what liberals had been doing successfully for years.  Hubert Humphrey got into national prominence on the single issue of civil rights, while for George McGovern the single issue was peace, and Ralph Nader has been nothing if not a coalition of single-issue groups and causes.

(To be continued with our next excerpt.)


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”
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