For organizers evaluating potential mailing campaigns for groups of volunteers, your first consideration is not to decide between postcards and letters — although that may seem an intuitive first step. The research we’ve seen indicates that both voter outreach methods have similar rates of effectiveness and impact.
So, how can you select the right campaign for your volunteer groups? What clues do the data on past mailing campaigns contain?
Data Is the Place to Start
Credible research is probably the first and most important criterion you should seek when assessing a potential direct mail campaign. Measurable results are important. Because while data isn’t perfect, it’s a perfect place to start.
When evaluating a direct mail campaign, plan to ask the sponsoring organization some version of the following questions:
- Is there research demonstrating the effectiveness of the campaign they’re proposing?
- Do they plan on studying the mailing’s outcomes?
- Can they demonstrate positive results from past campaigns or similar efforts?
If there’s no research available, and/or no plans to measure the campaign’s effectiveness, organizers have to rely on guesswork, sponsor reputation, and other non-verifiable measures. This can create fuzzy standards that are hard to verify — and simply put, may not be the best use of your group’s time if you’re interested in really making an impact.
How Your Group Should Approach this Data
What follows here is information about mailing campaigns conducted during the election cycles over the past two decades, including the evolving situations that we have seen in the 2018 midterm and 2020 general elections. We’ve gathered data from our own campaigns — Swing Blue Alliance sent 1.7 million cards and letters in 2020 — along with direct mailings from Sister District and data reported by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber in their very valuable book, Get Out the Vote, How to Increase Voter Turnout.
A caveat: Similar to the way financial products often carry a disclaimer that past performance is no indication of future gains, the data, recommendations, and conclusions we present here are meant to inform and guide your decisions, not guarantee results or outcomes. This information represents highlights of the most recent research from highly reputable sources. It is neither comprehensive nor fully conclusive. As always, organizers should view these data through the lens of their own situations or, in other words, the conditions you face on the ground. Use your judgment when making the leap from our research findings to your group’s particular circumstances and goals.
The Bottom Line: Postcards and Letters Can Boost Voter Turnout and Registration
While research is ongoing, current evidence shows that handwritten communications like postcarding and letter-writing can increase voter turnout and registration. Turnout increases for postcard programs can approach 2%, occasionally higher. If this seems minimal, consider that in close elections, sending large numbers of cards may raise turnout to levels in the same range as vote margins. Postcards also impact older voters more than younger ones and seem to boost turnout more in primaries than in general elections.
For organizers evaluating all the possible methods of helping their volunteers engage with voters, mail campaigns offer four critical advantages.
- Postcards and letters can reach addresses that are inaccessible by canvassing or by phone.
- Mailing campaigns are introvert-friendly activities that allow a wide range of volunteers to participate in Democratic support efforts.
- Mailings are a good option for volunteers who are less comfortable with technology.
- Handwritten mail can be stockpiled and mailed at the optimal time.
On the downside, postcards and letters are simply not as effective as personal contact methods like canvassing. Handwriting varies in legibility, and this can impact effectiveness. Cards and letters also constrict your messaging. Unlike talking with someone, these methods offer limited space for the ideas you’re trying to convey.
Impact on Voter Registration by Mail
Swing Blue Alliance focused its 2020 voter outreach efforts on sending vote-by-mail applications to Democratic voters who were less likely to vote. Key findings included:
- A postcard with a tear-off application for an absentee ballot increased overall turnout by 2.6% in Broward County, Florida.
- In Duval County, the same postcards did not increase overall turnout, but turnout was 1.5% higher within a subgroup of people who had not voted in the last two elections.
- In Erie County, PA, Swing Blue Alliance mailed absentee ballot applications to Democratic voters, but did not select based on voter likelihood. There was no statistically significant effect on voting.
- In Sarasota County, postcards with stamps on the reply card were 4.23 times as cost-effective as one-stamp cards.
Get Out the Vote (GOTV) Mail
The Progressive Turnout Project, Vote Forward, and the Green and Gerber book all provided data on the impact of GOTV mailings on voter turnout. The key findings include:
- As a general rule, when you expect high turnout in an election, it’s best to direct mailing efforts to low-propensity voters.
- In elections with lower stakes, like the midterms (in a typical election cycle), targeting high- or moderate-propensity voters makes more sense.
- The Progressive Turnout Project found that GOTV postcards with a short social pressure messages increased turnout by 0.14% in the 2020 general election.
- Vote Forward, an organization that writes letters to voters, found that partially handwritten letters across a variety of election contexts generally provided a small turnout boost, with the greatest effect in special elections (0.4-3.4%).
What About Messaging?
Several important conclusions emerged from the research about messaging (e.g., what you say in the mailing and how you say it). First, get-out-the-vote partisan messaging does not work. Nor does direct mail that merely reminds voters of an upcoming election and urges them to vote. It is better to provide voters with non-partisan, practical information. As John Loewenstein of Swing Blue Alliance’s research team put it, “‘Hey, there’s an election coming up’ is not enough.” He continued, “for example, in Florida in 2020, our messages that offered three specific ways to request a mail-in ballot delivered good results.”
Mail sent by an official source, such as the registrar of voters, is roughly twice as effective as ordinary nonpartisan mail. For example, a letter from a public official assuring voters that their ballots are secret seems to work well — better than the same reassurances from someone outside the government or a reminder to vote from the same official.
According to Green and Gerber, get-out-the-vote mailers increased turnout modestly when they included certain kinds of “unconventional” messages, for example, emphasizing civic duty or stressing the importance of making one’s voice heard in an important election. Social pressure messaging is also compelling, as in, “your friends and neighbors are voting.” Additionally,
reminding the recipient of their earlier pledge to vote can provide a boost. On the other hand, it makes no difference whether mailers use positive or negative messaging. And surprisingly, bilingual mailings are not more effective than mailings written solely in English.
For organizers trying to develop an action plan for their volunteer group, the data clearly show the value — and drawbacks — associated with direct mail campaigns. As noted, this is a summary of the methods Swing Blue and others have used successfully to increase voter registration and turnout. Clearly, there’s a lot more to learn.
“I would encourage organizers, especially people who are new to organizing or aren’t latching onto an existing postcard or letter campaign, to take a good look at Green and Gerber’s book, Get Out the Vote,” said Bob Newby, Swing Blue research team volunteer. “The chapter on direct mail has a lot of great observations and lessons that group leaders can adapt to their own campaigns. With the midterms coming, there’s much from 2020 and before that we can all use to support Democrats this next time around,” he concluded.
Interested in organizing volunteers with Swing Blue Alliance? Learn more
Marilyn Hirsch is a freelance copy and editorial writer based in MetroWest Boston