When I first started working in politics in the mid-1990s, Hal Malchow was one of Democrats’ top political strategists. He was a direct mail guru who built a highly successful firm and wrote the first book on microtargeting before computers revolutionized the practice. About ten years ago, Hal abruptly quit the business after research showed that direct mail, as it was used by campaigns, was largely ineffective. He told me a few years ago that he couldn’t in good conscience continue selling something he knew didn’t work. Since he left the industry, he’s been trying to change the way Democrats communicate.
A couple of weeks ago, Hal wrote an article for The Hill critical of the way Democrats communicate and highlighting what he sees as a huge missed opportunity. He believes that the Party should be spending more on a branding campaign, both touting Democratic successes and punishing Republicans’ bad behavior. Hal believes that the communication vehicles of the party should be spending money in real time, talking to voter when events happen. As he says, “Tying ads to events currently in the news adds credibility to the messages delivered. Instead of heavy-handed ads that tell the voters what to think and what to believe, we need to simply add information to events already in the news.”
In particular, Hal believes that Democrats should have better exploited the January 6 insurrection. In the wake of that incident, voters’ preference shifted almost 10 points to the Democrats because of Republicans’ insistence that the election was fraudulent and they supported, or at least condoned, the attack on the Capitol. Yet the Democratic Party and its allied SuperPACs have spent very little effort to keep the narrative alive.
For decades, political consultants and strategists within the Democratic establishment have hammered home the idea that campaigns are won within the final two months or so of the campaign. They’ve also made campaigns candidate centric, a relic of a time when we had more swing voters. With very few truly independent voters, Democrats should be trying to influence behavior throughout the election cycle, not just at the end.
He also believes we should move away from heavy-handed ads that are ineffective and work to better inform voters by giving them information and trusting them to make their own decisions. He cites a study that compared three ads. The only one that moved voters was one that compared candidates’ positions without endorsing either. Ones that used bold headlines and photos proved ineffective.
I think Hal is largely right. We need to move away from the over-the-top language of political ads and start treating voters like adults. Give them information and choices instead of scary images and ominous music. Campaign year-round, spending war chests as needed instead of at the end of a campaign when most voters have already chosen a side. And recognize that persuadable voters make a very small portion of the electorate. Campaign budgets should reflect a balance between field operations and persuasion campaigns.