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The Sweep: Midweek Mop-Up with Dave Kochel
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The Sweep: Midweek Mop-Up with Dave Kochel

A tutorial on how direct mail campaigns work, and how they are more important than ever this year.

I met Dave in 2016 when we were fellows at Harvard’s Institute of Politics together. It was a little like going back to college ourselves, but adultier and without midterms. The six of us fellows lived together on campus and spent all of our free time together, cooking dinner and staying up late talking politics in our PJs. And we did it all against the backdrop of a whole bunch of bewildered Harvard students who had been told that Donald Trump could never become president. Here’s a picture of Kochel’s oddly impressive bowling skills and our crew the day after the election.

But I knew of Kochel for almost a decade before that because he is everyone’s favorite GOP consultant. Literally. Everyone. If you meet someone who tells you they don’t like Dave Kochel, run. They are most likely about to eat your liver with some fava beans. And in Iowa, Kochel is really a rock star. He plays drums. In an actual band. They’re good.

More to the point, Kochel has worked on six presidential campaigns, including both of Mitt Romney’s runs and most recently Jeb Bush’s. In any given cycle, he could have a dozen or more races he’s actively involved in. In fact, he’s currently working on Sen. Joni Ernst’s race, which we discuss a little below. 

Sarah: You are in the direct mail business. What does that mean?

Kochel: Right now is my busy season. We are ramped up in about six or eight campaigns around the country. My role is to work with the general consultant of the campaign and media consultant–maybe the communications staff–to put together a message arc using mail like the kind you find in your mailbox. Sometimes direct mail can look a lot different from what the media campaign will look like. It might look different from the regular communication strategy. With technology these days for both digital and direct mail, there’s a lot of micro targeting to all kinds of different audiences.

Sarah: How important are those postcards going to be this time around?

Kochel: I think direct mail is going to be more important than ever. I know all vendors say “you know my specific discipline needs more money.” But when you think about the number of people who are going to vote by mail this year–whether they’re requesting an absentee ballot or whether they’re in a state that has mail-in ballots like my state here in Colorado or Oregon or California–it’s good to communicate with people in the channel that they’re using to vote. 

A lot of people over the last 10 years have said “well, the direct mail business is going to die out in favor of digital because people just aren’t using the mailboxes anymore.” But the truth is, there’s probably going to be more money spent in this election cycle on direct mail than at any time in history when it’s all put in the books and I think a lot of it will have to do with the absentee ballot requests. I think both parties are going to be very aggressive about that having nothing to do with the way the president talks about it.

Sarah: Are the candidates right now coming to you saying “I need to teach my voters how to vote by mail?”

Kochel: There’s a ton of that going on. And I would say at a factor of two to three times what we’ve ever seen in the past. So a whole bunch of educational mail, where you’ll include the ballot request form and instructions, and here’s how, and “this is what you need to complete the form.” And then there’s a chase program that follows that will sometimes be postcards or even digital chase or a robo phone call. So there’s an enormous infrastructure right now in both parties going after and trying to train voters to use early vote–whether it’s in-person early voting or at a county auditor or another satellite location or a mail in ballot. 

Sarah: I’ve actually written about absentee chase programs being a big deal when it comes to voter turnout. And that as the campaign season moves on and you start thinking less about voters on the axis of who they’re voting for and more on the axis of whether they’re voting, absentee chase really ramps up. Will you walk through what that would mean for a top-tier Senate candidate right now?

Kochel: First of all, there’s tracking that is available in most states. You get real-time feedback, often daily, of all of the voters who have requested a ballot. So in a state like my home state of Iowa, we’ll be tracking every single day who is requesting a ballot and who we have sent those requests to. And then you’re going to have a couple of different channels of chase messages where you’re going to remind them almost immediately that they’ve got a mail-in ballot and that they need to perform that ballot. In some cases, it could be a door knock. In some cases, it’s a volunteer phone call from the campaign, offering to go pick up the ballot and hand-deliver it.

Most campaigns basically engage in a multitrack chase program that starts almost immediately on the day that the ballot is shipped out. Not necessarily the date that it’s requested, by the way. For example, in Iowa you’ve been able to request a ballot since July, but no ballot will be mailed to a voter until October 5. That’s the first date that the secretary of state’s office allows it. So, that’s when the chase programs will start–right on the heels of the ballots going out.

And then you keep a running tally of which ballots have been performed and you ramp up the pressure on the people who haven’t voted them. As you get closer–within two weeks out from the election–it’s pretty much going to be volunteer phone calls and offering to drive those ballots.

Sarah: And that makes a big difference in turnout.

Kochel: The party that does two or three points better on performing their ballots … it’s going to make a huge difference because we could see 70 percent of voters in 2020 actually voting by mail in the states where that is an easily available option. And that’s just a massive increase from what we’ve seen

Sarah: Aside from size of the operation, is there anything else you’re going to change about your chase programs because of the pandemic this year?

Kochel: You’re doing your other messaging earlier. You know when we’re dropping persuasion mail so that you can be in front of voters in the time window when they are thinking about actually casting a vote. Once a ballot is cast, there’s no point in messaging to them anymore so they actually get suppressed from the data files. So campaigns are having to account for the number of people who are going to be voting in an earlier window. You can’t wait till the last week of October to drop your big message.

Sarah: October surprise is going to be “a week from now” surprise. 

Kochel: Right, exactly the late September surprise. 

Sarah: Who pays for all this?

Kochel: Most of these programs are run through state parties because they can use a nonprofit postage rate, which saves about 10 cents on every piece. That is a lot of money when you’re talking about some of these big mail programs. There’s also a volunteer component to direct mail because it provides an exemption for coordination rules, so a lot of people don’t know that if there’s a volunteer touch on a mail piece, it actually allows the committees to coordinate with the actual Senate campaign. But that means you have to actually recruit volunteers. So there’s a lot of moving parts underneath these programs. It’s quite an operation once it gets moving. 

Sarah: You mentioned that there could be a totally different messaging arc between the direct mail and what people are seeing, for instance, on television ads. Can you give an example?

Kochel: Sure. In a congressional race right now, the message on television is “votes with Pelosi” and “we need to clean up Congress” and then in the mail part of the message will be Pelosi but some of it might be about the Hyde Amendment and taxpayer funding for abortions. Message and issue tests are in the campaign’s voter file so we would send that message only to people that we know will be particularly responsive to that message.

Sarah: So it’s just way more targeted, more rifle shot rifle shot.

Kochel: You don’t want to spend broadcast television dollars to send a message to the entire district when you know that you’ve only got about 20 or 30 percent of people in the voter file that are going to be strongly receptive to that message. A lot of our congressional and Senate candidates are trying to figure out how to address the gender gap so there might be specific messaging going to suburban women or parents with children in the home. 

Sarah: When you get a piece of direct mail in the mail, how are you judging it? What are you noticing that we aren’t?

Kochel: It’s usually a stickiness to it. It might be because the image is really compelling and sort of fits with a headline that grabs you or it might be something provocative or it might be something humorous. The best mail has a lot of repetition.

Because remember, people are going to interact with a mail piece for 20 or 30 seconds at the most. Once in a while we’ll do you know what I call a T-bar–a sort of side by side where you have “candidate A says this” and “candidate B says that” and so sometimes you can get really specific on policy with people that you think are going to be really interested in a specific policy Beyond that, does it stand out? Is it colorful? Sometimes you see odd sizes in the mail so that it doesn’t just sit with the letter-rate postage. 

You know, it’s kind of like you know when you see it.

Sarah: So, direct mail is like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity. Great! All right, let’s turn to the Senate races. Assuming that Alabama goes Republican, Democrats need four seats to take back the Senate. Do they already have four seats in the bag? If so, which ones, and if not, what is the fourth seat that you’ll be watching?

Kochel: I think the Democrats feel pretty confident about Colorado and Arizona, and those numbers have stayed pretty consistent. And then, you really have kind of a grab bag after that. Bullock is a very good candidate in Montana given his past performance there as governor. He’s done well on the ballot and Daines has struggled in that race. North Carolina is in play obviously. In Maine, Susan Collins has had more money spent up there than at any time in history. I think all those races are pretty close to within the margin. The Real Clear Politics average has Collins down four or so, but I actually think she’s gonna outperform as she gets closer. So I would say those three and then after that maybe the race that I’m involved in Iowa with Joni Ernst. Democrats have spent a fortune there. 

Sarah: So far in the Iowa race, is there anything that has surprised you?

Kochel: There’s so much money being spent on both sides, but the race doesn’t seem like it’s as fluid as people might expect. And I think this is partly the Trump factor. People are really dug in. Both parties are very rigid and there’s just not a lot of persuadable votes out there. So, you know, it feels like these races aren’t as fluid as they could be.

Remember the president won Iowa by 9.5 points in 2016, which was more than the margin in Texas. He’s not going to win by 9.5 in Iowa this time around. That was an outlier and particular animus toward Hillary. But I think he still pulls out the win here, which probably means Joni is a little safer than some of the head to head polling might show. And I think that might play a role in Montana as well. The president won’t win Montana by the margin he did in 2016 but they’ll still win it. And that’ll hold the ballot together.

Sarah: Are there any Senate races that you’ve been watching where you think the president is less of a factor than you’d expect at this point? 

Kochel: You know, maybe, North Carolina. I think Tillis is uniquely vulnerable there where I think the President is not likely to to drop that state. And then, I don’t know, in Maine, Susan Collins is so far outperforming the president statewide. Trump probably gets that one congressional district–the more rural district up there–but you know she’s got a pretty unique capacity to run well ahead of the president in that state because of her longtime brand there. I think Cory Gardner will run well ahead of the president but he’s in a really tough race. But you know he’s also one of our best candidates.

So there are a few places where there’s a little bit of a break between the Senate race and Trump on the ballot. 

Sarah: Lots of people who read this have maybe volunteered on a campaign before. They’ve maybe made some phone calls or licked some envelopes. I remember when they came out with those sponge pens with water so you didn’t have to lick every single envelope. Glorious. So you’re a big deal general consultant at the top of the food chain. What does that person who’s only volunteered on a campaign not know about the life of someone who’s in the back room calling the shots? 

Kochel: What they probably don’t know is the lifecycle of a campaign. It usually lasts between 18 and 24 months. And all of the work that goes in at the front end. It’s recruiting a candidate, it’s pitching work to get, it’s writing the campaign plan, putting together the finance operation, hiring a staff, building a team out. I mean, the amount of work that goes in, during the off year before a campaign, is something that happens completely out of the view of the volunteers who are coming in and hanging around headquarters over the last six months or so. So I’d say that’s probably it, but you know they also aren’t exposed to all the daily worries that we have. We’re hearing from reporters about oppo that’s about to drop on our candidate or whatever every single day and you’re trying to anticipate what’s ahead. 

Sarah: So, are you usually friends with the general consultant on the other side of the races you’re on? 

Kochel: My counterpart would be Jeff Link. I would describe him as a frenemy. He’s a great guy. I like him. When we’re not in the middle of a campaign we can usually sit down and have a beer together and kind of laugh about things that may have happened. But as you get closer, like we are now, it gets a little more intense. The new crop of consultants maybe don’t have as much of the camaraderie that we used to. It may still be the case in DC–maybe a little more cross pollination out there …

Sarah: No, it’s worse out here.

Kochel: Oh well, it very well could be. It’s certainly worse now than it used to be. I would say that.

Sarah: Let’s end on a happier note. A piece of advice for someone who wants to be you when they grow up?

Kochel: Oh, run the other way. Well, I will tell you this. If you wanted to do what I do, you would have to first determine whether or not you can accept the sheer terror of having to start over every two years–basically with a new career. And of course, as you build up a reputation, as you work on a lot of different campaigns–as someone who you helped as a legislator is running for Congress and then running for Senate–obviously there are lots of doors that open over time, but you’re never more than one cycle away from having a really bad downturn on the business side of things. So, you’ve got to be fearless. You got to try and stay current on technology and also current on the culture.

And always, always, if you can, try to pick candidates that you like and respect. Because that I think is for me the biggest thing that’s kind of kept me around politics. I’ve worked for a lot of really great people that I really like and enjoy being with. And that’s not always true for every consultant, but I’ve been really lucky. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in Iowa and people are just nicer here.

Sarah: Ha! Iowa nice. The perfect ending.

Photograph by Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.