Talking Points Memo has tried to delegitimize certain Republican or conservative strategies and tactics over the years. For example, Josh Marshall has tried to undermine conservative claims of voter fraud. (Thank God that we now have Election Journal, which is beginning to document the crime that is so systematic in the functioning of machine politics and which so many Democrats defend either implicitly or explicitly) This strategy may have reached its crowning success in the US Attorney scandal. I have heard from a number of sources that TPM's actions have stalled nearly all election fraud investigations at DoJ.
I have two points in writing this. First, direct mail needs to be defended. Second, the reporting by Tilghman is either dishonest or ignorant. The reporting of facts is solid but he does absolutely no work to place it in the context of direct mail practices. Again, his goal is to smear the practice.
First, the defense. Direct-mail fundraising is one area in which conservatives (more than Republicans) have a significant tactical advantage over liberals. A substantial delegitimization of direct mail fundraising would have the effect of defunding conservative candidates and organizations.
While direct-mail fundraising may not always be super-attractive in the days of internet fundraising, it provides an effecttive method of participation for people who do not trust giving over the internet, especially older voters. Hopefully, over time, we can educate our grassroots over time and move them into lower-overhead forms of fundraising with phone calls or, eventually, email. This is an important point to make. When some Republican consultants deride direct mail as not "effective", they need to ask "effective for whom?" It is still the most "effective" way of engaging some of our coalition.
More on Tilghman's reporting and the actual practice of direct mail after the jump.
Now to the actual practices that Tilghman discusses. But first we need to understand two things about direct mail: the relationship between the house list and prospecting and the high fixed costs of direct mail.
A campaign or organization will maintain a house list that contains regular donors. Generally, mailing the house list will turn a net profit. However, building the house list through prospecting is extremely expensive. At the beginning of a fundraising campaign, significant costs are incurred by organizations or direct mail firms.
One of themes of the TPM stories is a distortion of these facts into something nefarious. For example, from one story, they find that sitting Members of Congress, presumably with substantial house lists, get an excellent quarter-on-quarter ROI on their direct mail contract. On the other hand, new candidates and candidates with low-profiles and no house lists are spending an extraordinary amount of money in upfront costs, translation "prospecting."
In other words, TPM is reporting as news something that an intern at a direct mail firm would be fired for not understanding after a week or two.
The upfront costs are so high because ... putting a letter in the mail is really expensive. Sending out a mail piece in a prospect may have over $1 in fixed costs, including postage, printing, list-rental, etc. Most of these costs are fixed, making direct-mail fundraising a very low margin business. During prospecting you may get only 1% or 2% response rate, sometimes getting only $5 or $10 return per $100 spent on prospecting and only very rarely breaking even in the initial prospect. The early part of the process is awful. That's why candidates with no house list spend a lot of time prospecting, getting little return on investment.
It should be pointed out that there are analogues on the Democratic side. In 2006 and 2007, there were reports of Hillary Clinton building up her fundraising lists by ... prospecting. These were generally identified by reporters as large postage expenditures.
In other words, there is nothing here. Unless you confuse a reporter who either has no idea what he is talking about or has an agenda with an actual story.