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Use of Direct Mail In Down Ballot, Smaller Races

By Brad Crone

The single biggest campaign challenge a candidate for a down ballot race faces is how they are going to communicate with their voters. Direct mail is a sure fire strategy that helps candidates for General Assembly, County Commission or District Court communicate with their voters.

Direct mail messaging is one of the most effective and efficient communication tools in political campaigns, especially for down-ballot races. The ability to target your audience and track delivery provides quantifiable results for smaller, down-ballot campaigns.


Effective political mail must stand out from all the other clutter in the mailbox. If you are lucky, your mail will last approximately 15 to 20 minutes in the household. Then it usually ends up in the circular file. That’s why there must be a compelling graphic component and message.

In today’s pop culture, voters are very savvy. A poorly designed piece of mail can hurt a campaign. If your image and your profile are important, take time to invest in good photography and a professional graphic design. Any “Mac Jockey” can take a digital photo, slap down some type and call it direct mail. That approach could lead to disaster because your mail piece arrives in the home where the voter can’t determine if it is a mailer for a discount tire dealer or a money coupon saver.

Investing in good photography doesn’t include a Glamour Shot at the mall, either. Hire a professional photographer, take time design your shoot and get the photographs that are going to depict your campaign and your message. A campaign should budget between $1,500 to $2,000 for your photography.

Don’t panic at the cost of photography. You have to consider that a professional photographer is an investment that will protect and enhance your image and how it’s projected to voters.


Direct mail provides candidates various options in delivering key messages to targeted voters. The basic core messages are (1) the biography – the “meet me” piece that lets voters know who you are and what you believe; (2) the record – a background of leadership, service and experience; (3) Issues – discussing key issues in your race; (4) Endorsement –using friends and allies to help a candidate connect with certain voting blocs; (5) Comparative – comparing your record and platform to your opponents; (6) Attack & Counter-Attack – usually late mail pieces that address specific issues about your opponent and responses from your campaign.

There are other options including Slate Cards and Geographic mailers that are sent into certain neighborhoods targeted by the campaign.


Every candidate and campaign is different but the critical element of any successful election centers around careful planning. The candidate, the campaign manager or the campaign consultant should write a direct mail plan that establishes your game plan for direct mail messaging.

In writing a direct mail plan you should consider your core messages, your voter abstract and survey research to identify key voter targets and demographics that will allow you to pinpoint your messages to those critical voters. As a part of the direct mail plan you need to have a timeline to assist in its execution.

With today’s electronic voter files and consumer demographic profiles, you can micro-target audiences with specific messages that help you communicate with your swing voters. Don’t be afraid to use micro-targets to help put your campaign over the edge.


Don’t be afraid to call a consultant. There are too many candidates who have been penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to doing their own direct mail programs. Candidates too often are overwhelmed and therefore make minor mistakes that create huge headaches late in the campaign. Make sure you know what you are doing, if not, hire a consultant to assist you.

Seed your mailing list with names of key supporters and contributors. By having seed names in your targeted list, you can get a good idea of how well the US Postal Service is doing in delivering your mail. If after three days your mail hasn’t been delivered after dropping it at the Bulk Mail Entry Unit, then you know you have some problems somewhere.

Timing is critical. Mass mail does not equate to good mail. The number of pieces in a mail plan does not mean you will overwhelm your opponent. Well designed direct mail staged throughout the campaign cycle is more likely to succeed than massive mail drops in the last five days of a campaign.

Getting your mail delivered is another important component to your timing. Too often campaigns that dump a large amount of pieces in the last 7 days of a campaign end up with multiple pieces of mail delivered into the household on the same day.

Many consultants would argue that the number of mail pieces delivered into a household on a given day doesn’t matter – the important thing is the message is being delivered. I do not agree with that philosophy, especially in down ballot races.

If a voter gets three pieces of mail from the same candidate on the same day, the obvious reaction is, “Why is Johnny Jones filling up my mailbox with so many pieces of mail? This is a waste of money and a waste of time.” It’s not a positive reinforcement of the campaign.

Starting early with your mail communications allows the down-ballot candidate to be pro-active, informative and personal with the voter, helping build a foundation of support that will be re-connected late in the campaign. Timing and staging of your mail is very important – start early and build slowly

Finally, be prepared. Work with your consultant or designer to prepare mail in the event you are attacked. Using your standard campaign communication grid, anticipate the worst attack that could be leveled against you and prepare a response and a counter-attack. You may never have to use it, but by planning in advance, you won’t be in panic mode late in the campaign.

Brad Crone has more than 24 years experience in public affairs,
governmental relations and journalism. He is former publisher
of The Thomasville Times and The Clayton Star.
He formed Campaign Connections in 1991
specializing in down ballot campaigns.
He has consulted in more than 400 races in NC, VA, WV, TN, GA and PA.

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