Vote-by-Mail: A Catalyst for Change in Political Marketing

Bernay’s Cup Winning Article. Published in Public Relations Quarterly.

By Jason Grigsby
Scores of reporters flocked to Oregon during January’s special election to replace disgraced Senator Bob Packwood. Each came with their own theory on how the nation’s first state-wide all mail-ballot election for federal office would transform the nature of political campaigns.

Numerous accounts detailed the efforts that the campaigns used to encourage voters to return their ballots. However, many of these reports mistook an evolution in political marketing for the results of this new voting process. Vote-by-mail acts as a catalyst for this evolution.

The Relationship Between Commercial and Political Marketing

Political campaign techniques have almost always followed the lead of commercial marketing. “Politicians and political activists quickly adapt techniques that have proven effective in the economic marketplace.”

Political campaigns have evolved from a party concept to a marketing concept. Under the party concept, voter mobilization was the most important factor for successful campaigns. The party bosses, like Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, had tremendous power over the organization.

Starting with President John F. Kennedy, the focus shifted from the party to the candidate. The book The Making of the President, outlined what is called the product concept in marketing, “which stresses the importance of manufacturing a quality product.” In politics, this meant finding the best candidate to sell.

With Richard Nixon, political marketing changed again. Nixon’s campaign strategy has been labeled the selling concept. Great efforts were taken to sell Nixon to people by utilizing the knowledge of media experts. In this concept, “the voter’s reaction to the candidate’s media appearances becomes critical.”

Modern campaigns use the marketing concepts and tactics popularized by commercial marketers. The marketing concept focuses on voter wants and needs. The politician then finds (or creates) a part of the campaign platform that conforms with the needs of the voters.

The parallels between political marketing and commercial marketing are demonstrated in Table 1.

Table 1: Similarities Between Commercial Marketing and Political Marketing Evolution.
Political Marketing Commercial Marketing
Party Concept An internally driven organization run by party bosses and
centered on the political party.
Pre-industrial marketing Products are selected by distributors and delivered to consumers generically. When something sells out, more is ordered.
Product Concept An internally driven organization run by Washington insiders
and centered on the candidate. Stresses finding the best
possible candidate.
Product Concept Sells the quality of the product through the brand. Example: Model T Ford manufactured for quality.
Selling Concept An externally driven organization run by Madison Avenue experts and centered on the candidate. Attempts to create favorable impression of the candidate by the voter. Selling
Companies like Proctor and Gamble create markets for new products. They begin to experiment with image-based advertising.
Marketing Concept An externally driven organization run by marketing experts and centered on the voter. Polling determines the message sent to the voter. Marketing Concept Companies first identify consumer needs and then develop products to meet those needs.

Source: Newman, 31-4.

Interactive Marketing

Commercial marketing is evolving into what is being called interactive marketing. The changes in technology and growth of the Internet have spurred a increase in attempts to market products and services interactively.

Interactive marketing, like modern marketing, relies on identifying the needs and desires of consumers. However, “the new marketing does not deal with consumers as a mass or as segments, but creates individual relationships, managing markets of one.”

Because the cost of databases has dropped dramatically, marketing has shifted away from demographics and market segments. A database of transaction histories becomes the primary marketing resource. “From this information can come a more detailed understanding of the consumer’s buying process, as well as an opportunity to target the consumer with individually selected marketing messages or products.”

For example, today some retailers use a customer’s purchase pattern to decide what products the consumer is most likely to purchase in the future. It then sends the customer only catalogs that the consumer is likely to purchase from. In theory:

Computer-driven catalog binding makes it possible for Lands’ End to construct, at least in principle, a unique catalog for every customer it serves. The model that predicts purchase probability and designs the personal catalog is updated continuously as it learns the outcome of its past predictions.

Based on past interactions with the company, the marketer customizes the communication to the individual.

Table 3: Comparison of Mass Marketing, Interactive Marketing, and Vote-by-Mail Marketing.
Marketing Trends Mass Marketing Interactive Marketing Vote-by-Mail Marketing
Segmentation Marketers measure the demographic and psychographic profiles of current customers or likely converts. They group together individuals with similar profiles and treat them as if they were identical. Marketers use actual behavior to identify customers and prospects and statistical models to assess the value of each address. Each customer can receive a customized offering. Campaigns use historical patterns of voting behavior to determine when, how, and for whom an individual votes. Attempts are made to personalize the communication to the voter.
Advertising Communications are designed for the mean of the target group. Advertising can use information on the individual customer. Computer-driven magazine binding allows selective insertion of print advertising. In-line inkjet printing can add lines of copy to individual ads. Cable television promises to transmit commercials to specific homes. Customers can remove themselves from unwanted ad pools. Campaigns attempt to personalize messages through direct mail, telemarketing, and canvassing. However, the campaigns still use strategies dependent on groups of voters instead of individuals. Perhaps lack of time or the costs of individualized printing prevents campaigns from using individual communication.
Promotion Promotional offers are broadcast, using tools such as freestanding newspaper inserts, or mailed indiscriminately to homes defined by geodemographics. Promotions are tailored to an individual’s past behavior, are based on the payout anticipated from promoting to that consumer, and are selectively delivered to that consumer. Information and canvassing services are selectively distributed to people based on their past performance and strength of political affiliation.

SOURCE: Blattberg and Deighton, 12.

The similarities between the vote-by-mail campaign techniques and interactive marketing are striking. It appears that campaigns may be headed towards interactive marketing.

Does Vote-by-Mail Really Change Campaigns?

Without a doubt, vote-by-mail directly changes the nature of campaigns. The fact that choices are made at the kitchen table instead of the voting booth is just one of many ways that mail-ballot elections change an election.

However, many of the changes in campaign techniques can be attributed to a shift from a marketing concept to an interactive marketing concept. In these cases, vote-by-mail acts as a catalyst for an evolution in political marketing. Similar to how the Internet’s growth has affected commercial marketing, vote-by-mail changes the focus from demographic segments to “demographics of one.”


  1. Jack Lyle and Douglas B. McLeod, Communication. Media and Change. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing 1993): 163.
  2. Bruce l. Newman, The Marketing of the President. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994): 33.
  3. Newman, 33.
  4. Robert C. Blattberg and John Deighton, “Interactive Marketing: Exploiting the Age of Addressability.” Sloan Management Review 33.1: 5.
  5. Lisa A. Petrison and Paul Wong, “From Relationships to Relationship Marketing Applying Database Technology to Public Relations,” Public Relations Review 19.3 (1993): 237.
  6. Blattberg and Deighton, 7.
  7. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, (New York: Alred A. Knopf, 1995): 164.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.