Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Marco Rubio, direct mail, and other swindles

Another post about the nuts and bolts of election campaigns ...

Right wing godfather Richard Viguerie markets his direct mail business this way:

Known as the “Funding Father of the conservative movement,” [he] helped build the modern conservative movement, mailing more than 3 billion letters and helping raise over $7 billion since 1965 for pro-freedom groups and causes.  As the acknowledged pioneer of political direct mail, Richard led the way in bypassing the mainstream media monopoly to directly reach millions of Americans, empowering them to shift the political landscape of the country. 

In the 1960s and '70s, Viguerie's lists were a top of the line resource for conservative politicians. He got his start hand-copying the names of donors from public records; with 12,500 to start with, he'd built his list to 25 million entries by 1980.

In an important exposé, historian Rick Perlstein explains that Viguerie and his conservative imitators in the mail business, no matter how genuine their rightwing sentiments, were always operating a con game, fleecing gullible marks through a business model where most of the take went to the data vendors -- themselves.

The Viguerie Company’s marketing genius was that as it continued metastasizing, it remained, in financial terms, a hermetic positive feedback loop. It brought the message of the New Right to the masses, but it kept nearly all the revenue streams locked down in Viguerie’s proprietary control. Here was a key to the hustle: typically, only 10 to 15 percent of the haul went to the intended beneficiaries. The rest went back to Viguerie’s company. In one too-perfect example, Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia—who paid $889,255 for the service.

The business has become more technologically savvy and still goes on today, as you know if you've ever gotten on one of these lists; my father made that mistake and he still gets heartfelt pleas for conservative causes -- despite having died in 1991.

All this is introduction to a terrific explanation from Daily Kos Elections which tells the story of how the right wing mail con machine enabled one of their presidential clowns to game his way to a Senate seat.

Want to fake being a good fundraiser? Let Marco Rubio be your guide!
You see, before Rubio was frustrating everyone from his debate coach to his dentist, he was the clear underdog against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary. As the Tampa Bay Times' Adam Smith explains in a great 2010 article, in the summer of 2009, Rubio resisted calls to just get out of Crist's way and run for attorney general, but his stubbornness could only take him so far. Rubio had only raised $340,000 from April to June, and he knew if he turned in another weak quarter, he'd lose any hope of looking like a viable candidate.

So Rubio took a big risk on direct mail to temporarily augment his fundraising. Direct mail brings in tons of money from small donors, but it costs so much to implement that candidates end up netting very little moola. Rubio and his team knew full well that they wouldn't be keeping most of his cash, but that wasn't the point: By turning in an eye-popping quarter, Rubio could draw lots of attention and endorsements from Crist-hating Republicans, who would send money to him that he could actually use later.

And it worked like a charm. In October, Rubio reported that he'd raised $1 million for the quarter. The well-funded Club for Growth quickly endorsed him and suddenly, Rubio's once-hopeless campaign had momentum. People eventually found out that Rubio had burned through most of the cash that he'd brought in, but by then, it didn't matter. As one of Rubio's advisors later put it, his direct mail stunt "was one-third confidence in our long-term prospects, one-third rolling of the dice, and one-third smoke and mirrors."

The DK Elections piece goes on to point out that Montana's Ryan Zinke and Utah's Mia Love -- both Republican Congressmembers in relatively safe seats -- seem to be copying Rubio's scam.

In a similar vein, it seems appropriate to ask why Dr. Ben Carson is still pretending to be running for President? His support has cratered. I can only conclude that for Carson and his staff, the campaign really is a "for profit venture." What a sad end to an accomplished career.

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