Direct Mail: Not Only Ethical But Essential For The Conservative Movement

Matt Lewis recently published a post in these pages titled “The Direct Mail Fundraising Racket: Is it Ethical?” As someone who has dedicated more than thirty years to raising funds for conservative candidates and nonprofit organizations, I can answer with a resounding YES! Not only is direct mail fundraising not a racket, it is the most vital fundraising weapon conservatives possess as they work to defeat liberal candidates and elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike.

Direct mail fundraising is, as Mr. Lewis states, “a legitimate practice.” He is also correct that direct mail fundraising “should not be your entire plan.” Apart from that, however, Mr. Lewis’ article fails to connect with the truth and the facts about the direct mail fundraising industry. He was irresponsible in giving kudos to substandard “investigative reporting” from a Detroit-based TV station and then linking to that report. How do I know the reporting was shabbily done and totally misleading? Because I am the president of Base Connect; we were the target of the Detroit reporter’s hit-piece, and I saw the whole episode unfold first-hand.

In his Daily Caller piece, Mr. Lewis made a series of editorial comments, starting with the assertion that, “the biggest problem with the mail is that the overhead is crazy.”

In our firm and pretty much industry-wide, the cost of sending out a piece of candidate direct mail is about sixty cents. This is hardly exorbitant. In fact, I think that is a fairly efficient means of contacting a potential donor in a meaningful way.

Direct mail prospecting has three very important purposes.

First, direct mail allows a campaign to build critical infrastructure. That infrastructure is necessary to a winning campaign. Direct mail is the backbone of the conservative movement. In any campaign, it’s the hard work in the early days that makes victory possible. That is equally true of direct mail fundraising. Base Connect’s effort in support of Allen West for Congress is a great example. While West’s campaign used the momentum from the previous cycle to build name recognition and a tremendous ground game, direct mail fundraising was building a grassroots donor army. The West fundraising campaign used direct mail very intelligently, reinvesting the funds to build that donor file. In the last 30 days, direct mail was able to provide half a million dollars to the campaign for its air war. The other side had no idea it was coming.

Second, direct mail gets your message out in a targeted way to the people who are most interested in your message. The ability of direct mail fundraising to heighten awareness of a candidate or cause among those most likely to take action is second to none. Here’s another success story: In the early part of the 2010 Nevada U.S. Senate race, Sharron Angle was running about 9 percent in the polls against two extremely unimpressive establishment candidates. Direct mail fundraising generated over 16,000 donors before the primary, making the Angle campaign viable. These 16,000 donors from all over the country made their voices heard. Did the mail that generated these donations break even?  No, it did not. But it secured the U.S. Senate nomination for our client. Ultimately, the Angle campaign netted over $6.5 million from direct mail, about $1 million more than the campaign’s online efforts.

Third, direct mail raises gross dollars for campaigns. The purpose of prospect mail is not to “break even” as Mr. Lewis writes. The purpose of direct mail is to build a house file that nets large amounts of money. Donor acquisition is generally not free. Every organization that raises money knows there is an acquisition cost per donor. The first donation and maybe several thereafter come in at a net loss. It is an industry standard that acceptable prospecting brings back eighty cents for every dollar of cost. The benefit of prospecting is that you are acquiring donors who will give over and over again. The benefit of gross prospecting dollars is to show the professionals here in Washington that you have the ability to raise funds.

William Russell represents yet another example of what Base Connect can do for non-establishment conservative candidates. Russell ran in 2010 against Rep. John Murtha. Because of the success of his direct mail prospecting, he was noticed by a prominent media personality who said on radio that Russell “could be the person to take out Murtha.” In minutes, the campaign website was overwhelmed by over $100,000 in donations. Without direct mail, none of that would have happened.

Next, Mr. Lewis gives his perspective on what he refers to as “truly unethical stuff.” In doing so, he seems to suggest that private enterprise is unethical. Every company that every person in the United States deals with every day has a goal of making money. I don’t know what to say about this other than individually and as members of organizations, the people in the conservative direct mail industry are some of the most honest, patriotic, committed individuals in the movement. Do they make money? Yes. Do they have the best interest of their clients at heart? At Base Connect, the answer is an overwhelming YES! Lewis makes it seem like all the political consultants and media consultants should ply their trade for free.

Mr. Lewis also wants to blame direct mail for candidates who lose. It is not a secret that most of the people who run for any given office lose. Is Lewis suggesting that only certain candidates are worthy of support? Many on the left and in the Republican political establishment use this argument. We think it best to let the market decide. Direct mail allows the candidates with the best message to rise to the top and those with uninspiring messages to fail.

Onto the topic of shell games and subsidiary companies. There is nothing “surreptitiously” done by Base Connect. Lewis intimates this isn’t so in regard to list companies who market and manage donor files. Legacy List Company, a sister company to Base Connect, is clearly named in our contract. I know this to be the case with other agencies as well. Base Connect discloses any and all relationships it has with companies it uses as vendors. Further, Base Connect and other reputable direct mail agencies do not mark up any vendor bills and receive no commissions from any vendors as many other political consultants do. The process is highly transparent and the client is given all the information regarding his or her program on an almost real-time basis.