News & Views from 465 California Street

You’ve Got Mail

Clint Reilly
Jul
8
2008

I remember the moment well. The year was 1979, and I was walking precincts in the Richmond District of San Francisco with mayoral candidate Quentin Kopp.

The Richmond was a diverse neighborhood that contained homeowners and renters, Asians, new professionals, Irish and Italian native San Franciscans, married couples, singles, seniors and young people.

The Richmond was supposed to be the most politically moderate neighborhood in the city. But as we walked door to door, day after day, I saw something else – an amalgam of every point of view from very liberal to very conservative.

The Asian families had far different concerns than the young white singles. The homeowners were 180 degrees from renters on fiscal issues. The working class ethnic Irish and Italians were mostly high school educated, while the young professionals were college educated and earning more that most of their neighbors.

The idea that the Richmond district was a homogeneous, monolithic voting bloc was erased by the experience of walking the 45 avenues that comprised the neighborhood.

Then a light bulb came on in my head.

What if we could speak only to the Asians via direct mail? And what if we could speak separately to the seniors, the young singles or the homeowners?

Also, what would happen if we could target mail at highly specific constituencies instead of the generic, one-size-fits-all messages that characterized almost all political communication?

Then I met Frank Tobe, a Los Angeles based computer whiz who had already created the computer software to do just that. Tobe produced mailing labels, computer letters, and other direct mail products. But he also developed a new tool for managing political campaigns called a count book.

The count book enabled consultants to quantify and aggregate groups of voters across geographic lines like neighborhoods or cities or regions.

Tobe’s biggest client was the Southern California powerbroker team of Michael Berman and Carl D’Agostino. Berman-D’Agostino was the political arm of the Waxman/Berman Los Angeles political machine controlled by Assemblyman Howard Berman and Congressman Henry Waxman.

I immediately saw how using this computer software could permanently change the way political campaigns were managed. Within a few years, it would radically transform American politics as well.

I developed my own software using a UC Berkeley computer science graduate student named Chris Seiwald. We attached new bells and whistles which enabled us to cross count categories such as married homeowners, senior Democratic women, Latino renters and more.

Now we were able to cross-match the groups with actual polling data and tailor direct mail advertising content that addressed the unique concerns of these various voters.

In some cases, we quickly realized that many of the groups were supporting our candidate before the election really even began, which enabled us to focus more on the voters who needed to be persuaded.

Soon we made another discovery. In smaller local elections and state and federal legislative races, the counts were reduced enough in size that we could actually inspire grass roots organization – i.e. volunteers – to persuade undecided peers to vote for our candidates and to help turn out our core supporters on Election Day.

Generic appeals to all voters were replaced by highly specific messages delivered via mail, phone or volunteer. Television became the delivery system for universal content.

As other consultants saw the possibilities and implemented this new technology, the modern political campaign template now used across the country was born.

Today the Internet is giving campaigns a whole new medium to pinpoint political advertising even more closely.

It’s only a matter of time before your home page is as deluged as your mailbox.

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