Smart voter contact: putting the personal touch back into campaigns

Roger Lee

Personal contact between candidates and voters has all but vanished from modern campaigns. And while the messages these candidates deliver may be compelling and research-driven, relying exclusively on standard self-promotional mail can simply fall flat.

What’s the difference between a qualified, experienced, hard-working candidate and a lazy, grandstanding wannabe?

Too often, the answer is “not much.” From the average voter’s perspective, all politicians seem preening and self-promotional. People generally don’t know candidates personally, making it tough to tell one political hopeful from another. Personal contact between candidates and voters has all but vanished from modern campaigns. And while the messages these candidates deliver may be compelling and research-driven, relying exclusively on standard self-promotional mail can simply fall flat.

Voters are disengaged, cynical and accustomed to the same, standard formula from campaigns year after year. They see little tangible benefit from politics, and they expect almost nothing from politicians – at least nothing good. To change their minds, we have to put the personal touch back into our campaigns. Candidates must establish personal rapport with voters, so that people can relate to the candidate as an individual interested in public service, not as a politician interested in self-promotion. Campaigns should reinforce that personal rapport with strong community-based third-party validation, to demonstrate a breadth of support for the candidate from “people just like me.”

Personal and validating direct mail can do just that, helping voters relate to the candidate. The unique, micro-targeted direct mail techniques outlined here are often missing from direct mail programs because they are labor-intensive, technically complicated and decidedly “unflashy.” But that is part of the magic: the “down designed” look, simulating what a campaign volunteer or neighbor would make themselves. It looks and feels personal. Its benefits are clear from the tracking polls and focus groups. And most importantly, it wins elections.

There was a time when candidates spent day after day building personal rapport with voters. While out on the campaign trail in Missouri, Harry Truman would live and sleep in his car. Traveling tirelessly to each hamlet and farmstead, he met every Tom, Dick and Mary in the state. And he developed the kind of rapport with regular voters that no political attack could ever take away. His campaigns touched people, giving everyday folks the feeling they had a personal relationship with him. He harnessed that personal rapport, and, confounding the political experts, won victory after unlikely victory all the way to the White House.

Truman’s style of campaigning is certainly of another era. Since then, political machines have declined, volunteer bases have shrunk, and candidates have shifted their focus from personal contact to dialing for dollars.

Today, voters have trouble connecting with candidates as individuals. And somewhere along the line, campaigns began to fail at the most basic task in politics – making a personal, relevant connection to real people’s lives.

It seems so simple – delivering a well-tested message to targeted voters, reinforced with strong third-party validation.

Relevance is the key. Voters start to identify with candidates who offer tangible and realistic benefits that are relevant to them and their families. When it comes to messages and messengers, campaigns often overlook the most credible third-party endorsers. The local PTA president or Neighborhood Watch leader often can deliver a stronger endorsement than a city council member or state senator.

The most frequently forgotten endorsers are the most obvious – people’s neighbors. People just like them. When your neighbor sends a personal note supporting a candidate, you are likely to open and read it. It flies in under the “junk mail” radar, and the recipient pays attention.

Building Rapport

When developing a mail plan, campaigns rarely include rapport building and third-party validation components. Although down-designed, these personalized micro-targeted mail programs are among the most persuasive activities in which a campaign can engage. And they reinforce, rather than replace, other campaign activities. Traditional graphically designed pieces focused on issues, image, comparisons and contrasts are also essential to any mail plan.

But traditional campaign mail isn’t personal. And, as we’ll outline shortly, not all field supportive mail maximizes the campaign’s hard work. Coffee-and-tea programs usually don’t build personal rapport with persuadable voters. And most neighbor-to-neighbor programs make only a fraction of the impact they could.

These letters, invitations and postcards are inexpensive and easy to create. They can be tailored to large statewide campaigns, or local races for city council. And they persuade in a way that purely self-promotional TV, radio and traditional campaign mail just can’t.

Walk Programs

Campaigns go to enormous trouble to recruit and organize volunteers to walk precincts. It’s an effort well worth making, but incredibly, campaigns often don’t maximize that effort.

Here are three ways to make the most of your walk program.

1. Pre-walk mail. Before the volunteers hit the streets, the campaign can send a micro-targeted pre-walk piece to every targeted voter household in the walk area. Usually eye-catching and date-specific, the pre-walk piece makes a strong statement that the candidate wants to meet with voters directly.

2. Walk piece. Amazingly, some campaigns think any old scrap of paper is “good enough” to deliver door-to-door. The walk piece may be the first contact by the campaign – giving the voter a first and often lasting impression of the candidate – so make sure it is high quality and on message.

3. Walk follow-up letter. After your campaign knocks on his or her door, the voter should receive a personalized, message-targeted follow-up letter or postcard within 48 hours. People often can’t remember on whose behalf their door was knocked unless they get the follow-up letter. And most importantly, it establishes personal rapport between the candidate and voter because it is a personal contact.

Personalized Mail

Personalized mail is just that- personalized.

* It’s not addressed “resident.”

* It’s not a mailing with a label or a window envelope.

* And it doesn’t have a bulk-rate indicia where the stamp should go.

Personalized means that if the volunteer spoke with Joshua Richards at the door, then the walk follow-up letter from the candidate is addressed to Joshua. The address is personalized. The greeting is personalized. The message is demographically micro-targeted (seniors can get a seniors message, etc.). And it is mailed using real postage stamps: bulk rate or first class, depending upon the size of the mailing.

The content of the walk follow-up letter is on message outlining the candidate’s relevant qualifications, experience, and plan to bring tangible and realistic benefits to Joshua and his family. Just as importantly, the personalized letter demonstrates that the candidate is accessible and cares about people like him. Include the candidate’s “home” phone number in the P.S. to give the voter a feeling he or she can call and communicate with the candidate.

Once rapport between the candidate and voter is established, tracking polls have shown that it never goes away. During hit [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] after negative hit, the voter stays with your candidate.

Phone Follow-Up

The same principle of personal contact holds true for the campaign’s persuasion phone program, paid or volunteer. Maximizing this activity means following the phone call with at least one personal letter or postcard. Voters often receive dozens of calls at election time and can have a hard time remembering which candidate was which. A personal letter or postcard reminds them, persuades them and helps deliver effective third-party validation.

Since the campaign is walking and calling the same targeted universe of voters (or ought to be), the phone follow-up letter should differ from the walk follow-up. The power of personal contact will be destroyed by sending the same person two identical pieces of “personal” mail. To vary the phone follow-up letter, send it from the person who made the call.

It looks like a letter from a neighbor or friend, and does not go out on campaign stationery or in a campaign envelope. (Follow your local or state campaign and election laws regarding political disclaimers.) When the caller – a person just like the voter – takes the time to write on behalf of a terrific candidate they believe in, it provides a powerful endorsement indeed.


The idea behind neighbor-to-neighbor letters is simple – every targeted voter receives a persuasive, individualized letter of support from one of their neighbors. It’s not flashy. But it is perhaps the most persuasive piece of mail a campaign can send: personal, validating, micro-targeted and effective.

Because neighbor-to-neighbor letters take a lot of time, staff and equipment, consider passing it off to your mail consultant. That leaves the campaign with two primary responsibilities: First, begin the micro-targeting process by giving every targeted precinct a specific town or neighborhood code. Second, locate a supporter in every targeted town and neighborhood to sign a letter. Remember to collect information about each signer that demonstrates community involvement, and include some of those details in the letter.

A congressional campaign may send 150 different neighbor-to-neighbor letters. Statewides often select up to 300 targeted towns and neighborhoods, while a city council race may mall from 10 to 50 versions. The letters are designed to look like they came from your neighbor, not the campaign.

The envelope is personalized with the neighbor’s return address in one corner, and a postage stamp in the other. With such a real and personal feel, this letter will be opened and read by the vast majority of recipients. It provides strong third-party validation, sending a message that it is “OK” to vote for a candidate of a different race or from a different part of the district, because that candidate has the support of “people just like me.”

Mail-Supported Coffees

The coffee klatch is a time-honored campaign tradition in many parts of the country, especially for small-donor fundraisers. But when an entire coffee program is organized around neighborhoods, and supported with two personalized mail pieces, it can become a rapport building tool with no equal.

Think of these coffees and teas in people’s homes more as town hall meetings, but without the newspaper ad and impersonal setting. The coffee program provides third-party validation through an invitation, demonstrates accessibility when the candidate appears in the voter’s neighborhood or town, and builds rapport with a personal follow-up letter.

To begin, select the sites around neighborhoods and towns in your target universe. Whether you are holding 10 coffees or 100, the principle is the same.

Next, the campaign helps each coffee host personally invite every targeted voter in their area. Invitations from a neighbor – someone just like the targeted voter – provide the candidate excellent third party validation.

Even in the most civic-minded areas in the country, a 1 percent turn-out for a candidate coffee is average. And while having a big turnout would be nice, it’s not important. Because the campaign wins whether the voters attend or not.

Those who attend the event will meet the candidate personally and receive a thank you note from him or her, building personal rapport. And as a side benefit, the people who show up are likely to volunteer, take a yard sign or even make a small donation.

The vast majority of voters in the area won’t attend the event, however, and won’t meet the candidate. But they too will feel a personal connection thanks to the targeted follow-up letter they receive. In the letter, the candidate expresses his or her regret that the voter was unable to attend, and highlights some of the important issues discussed at the coffee, micro-targeted to this voter’s specific demographic profile.

Start Early, Finish Strong

Candidates who establish personal rapport at the beginning of a campaign find that it never goes away. When you start early; the campaign should send periodic micro-targeted letters to remind voters about their relationship with the candidate. Then, when the campaign heats up toward the end, voters feel like they already know the candidate personally and are less likely to be persuaded by opponent’s attacks.

These high-tech, personalized direct mail techniques win elections because they help candidates earn the voters’ trust. When you put the personal touch back into your campaign, you will maintain their support through election day. And beyond.

Roger Lee is president and Peter Willmert is senior account executive of Strategy Source, a national Democratic general and direct mail consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Graphic design of materials shown by Michael Tapper.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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