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Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon (15 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 15 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

The establishment elites who ran the Republican and Democratic parties thought they had killed the conservative beast with Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964.  They didn’t count on our perseverance and Barry Goldwaterour ingenuity.  And they didn’t realize we would soon be utilizing a secret weapon.

That secret weapon was political direct mail.  Sears, Roebuck and Reader’s Digest had used direct mail commercially to build their empires.  Both Robert A. Taft and Dwight Eisenhower had used direct mail successfully in their political campaigns, but only sporadically, on an ad hoc basis, not systematically to build a mass movement. That was left to the conservatives.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, being the establishment, understood the true potential of political direct mail or had the will to use it.  The conservatives did.  They had no choice but to be adopt a populist bent, since establishment venues were closed to them.

And the rest was history.

Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon

For those of us who are old enough to have lived through it, the months following the defeat of Barry Goldwater were the Dark Ages for conservatives – far worse than, say, after Watergate in 1974 or after the Ford-Dole ticket lost in 1976.  Watergate was not about family – conservatives had supported Nixon because of who his opponents were, but he was not one of us.  Goldwater was family.  And his defeat was intensely personal.

In retrospect, of course, we were not as bad off as we imagined while licking our wounds.  To begin with the obvious, we had uncovered a hard-core base of 27 million who would vote for a conservative in America.  Perhaps the only advantage of running a fervently conservative and also often inept campaign was that it demonstrated that the worst-case scenario for conservatives could still produce 27 million votes.  And that meant conservatism didn’t have to be consigned to third-party status.  With better packaging and delivery, conservatism had a chance in mainstream America.

Another benefit for conservatives was that the Goldwater campaign stripped us of any delusions that we could get a fair shake from the establishment’s mass media.  We didn’t waste time, therefore, trying to convince the media that we were really good guys; instead we concentrated on guerrilla warfare – on ways to get around the establishment’s mass media.

We already had the answer – direct mail – though it wasn’t that obvious at first.  Even in the 1960s, direct mail was an established industry in America and offered businesses a way to sell directly to consumers.  Sears, Roebuck had become a corporate giant and trendsetter by putting its catalog into mailboxes all across America.  Reader’s Digest had become the world’s largest magazine and print publishing empire by utilizing direct mail advertising.  What remained to be done was to apply those same techniques to politics in a systematic way.

Think of a political movement as a stream that is trying to become an ever-larger river.  Then think about the importance of tributaries and water volume.  The more tributaries and the more volume, the bigger the river becomes.  In a political movement, those tributaries are organizations, campaigns, and issues people will fight over; and, in our instance, direct mail was the rain that fed those tributaries, causing them to grow individually.  Put those tributaries together, and they soon create a swelling river.  In the years between 1964 and 1980, direct mail was the rainfall that filled ever more substantial tributaries – organizations, campaigns, issues – that in turn, by 1980, had created the Mississippi River of American politics: conservatism.

Let us be clear that even before 1964 direct mail had been used in politics.  It was used sporadically, though, on an ad hoc basis, not systematically to build a movement.  The classic examples are from Senator Robert A. Taft’s campaign for reelection in 1950 and General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign in 1952.  Both stories are relayed in The Solid Gold Mailbox, written by Walter H. Weintz, the direct mail guru for Reader’s Digest.

Taft was the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and in 1950 the labor union bosses were pouring money into Ohio in an attempt to defeat his reelection bid.  His chief sin was that he was the coauthor of the Taft-Hartley Act, which curtailed the power of the union bosses to shut down the nation’s industries if they didn’t get what they wanted.  Unions were the most powerful political force in America at this time, and this was a “do or die” campaign for the bosses.

“Senator Taft was convinced that he should take his stand on the Taft-Hartley Law,” says Weintz, “and, of course, we tried to talk him out of that, because we knew that blue collar workers would be against him on the basis of the Taft-Hartley Act.”  Since the senator was adamant about taking a principled stand, his advisors retreated to the follow-up barricade: “Let’s test it.”  One of the great advantages of direct mail is that it allows you to test what you “know” to be true.  Different letters were mailed to Ohio constituents about why they should support Senator Taft, and asking for contributions.  Each letter had a “key code” to measure responses.  Here is what happened, as Weintz tells us in his informative book:

We sent out about 20,000 copies of each letter.  I was astounded when the letter (written by Senator Taft), which was built around a positive presentation of the Taft-Hartley Act, was far and away the most successful.

We subsequently mailed hundreds of thousands of Taft-Hartley letters into the blue collar worker sections of the industrial cities of Ohio: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, and so on.  The blue collar workers responded by voting overwhelmingly for Taft against the urging, advice, and $3 million campaign fund of the union leaders.

In addition, much to our surprise, we received a substantial number of small contributions, which helped us to finance the direct mail campaign.  Indeed, the campaign paid for itself!

As far as we can tell, this is the first documented case in American political history in which  direct mail was used to bypass the establishment (in this instance the union bosses) and go directly to constituents (the union workers themselves), producing a victory based on conservative principles.

In the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower had defeated Taft for the GOP nomination, but his campaign was stalled for lack of a clear-cut political theme. Again, the candidate’s advisors were certain, as Weintz puts it, “that campaigns are won by not taking a stand on anything.”  They opted for the “it’s time for a change” theme.  Others thought that letters denouncing Democrat corruption or detailing pocketbook issues would do best.  Reader’s Digest again loaned Weintz’s services to the Republican Party, and Weintz tested the issues by writing 10 letters on different campaign themes and initially sending out 10,000 copies of each of the 10 letters.

To the surprise of virtually everyone, including Weintz, the clear winner was the letter on foreign policy, touting the headline, “WILL YOU VOTE TO CONTINUE CODDLING THE RUSSIANS?” and promising to produce results in the seemingly never-ending war in Korea.  It pulled about two-and-a-half times better than any of the other letters.

Weintz tells what happened next:

It was a striking, clear-cut proof that the war in Korea outweighed every other political appeal Eisenhower could make.

The results were so conclusive that we put together a report…and showed [Eisenhower] these results.  A few days later, Eisenhower made his famous “I shall go to Korea” speech, and suddenly his campaign was off and running.

Using the Korea theme, Weintz got 300,000 small contributions for the Republican Party.  The direct mail campaign not only paid for itself but also brought in additional funds to be used elsewhere. 

This sort of broad-based political support was revolutionary, considering that up to this time most presidential campaigns – in both major parties – were financed by a relative handful of fat-cat supporters.  In effect, the Republicans had discovered a secret weapon – direct mail – but failed to use it in a systematic, sustained way because the party under Eisenhower and Nixon was oriented toward the establishment, not toward a grass-roots base.  It would take the Democrats even longer to appreciate the potential of direct mail in politics.  Conservatives would be the ones to take the letter and run with it.

As we wrote in Chapter 3, “The Recipe for Creating a New Mass Movement,” Martin Luther’s “secret weapon” – the printing press – “wasn’t literally a secret weapon, of course, not on the line of the development of an atomic bomb during World War II.  It had the impact of a secret weapon, though, because Luther understood the potential of this new technology and he had the will to use it, unlike his opposition in the Catholic Church.”

So, too, with this modern secret weapon of direct mail.  Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, being the establishment, understood its true potential or had the will to use it.  The conservatives did.  They had no choice but to be adopt a populist bent, since establishment venues were closed to them.


America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
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