If a political campaign wants to send a mailer to gun owners who subscribe to “Field & Stream” magazine, it can. If a candidate needs to reach voters who have kids in school and earn less than $100,000 a year, there’s a database that will find them.
“If you really got down to it, and you wanted to build a database of people who live in Buckhead, who have green hair and make $50,000 a year and vote Democrat, you could probably do that if you want,” said Mark Davis.
He would know. For nearly 25 years Davis, who operates out of a nondescript office park in Lawrenceville, has run one of the most sophisticated political mailing and data houses in the country. When some Georgia counties were still creating voter rolls with typewriters, Davis pioneered campaign targeting and helped speed the growth of the Republican Party in the state.
TV ads and social media may get all the attention, but even today direct mail is the dominant medium in state legislative races and other down-ballot contests.
With the explosion of technology and the availability of deeply detailed information about individuals’ interests and behaviors, the practice of targeted marketing has become more sophisticated and more common.
“If someone receives a piece of political mail, it is not random and not just because they’re a registered voter,” said Joel McEllhanon, one of the more prolific Republican campaign consultants in Georgia. “It’s because they fit a certain profile that the campaign is trying to reach.”
Data houses can purchase data on magazine subscriptions, home values, car registrations, hunting or fishing licenses and much, much more. Davis does his own data-mining, the monotonous — and relentless — accumulation of information on how individuals spend their money and time.
Data in hand, he helps identify blocs of voters to target based on the issues in a particular campaign. The more a campaign has to spend, the greater the depth of the research.
If, for example, a candidate runs for school board on a vow not to raise taxes, consultants like Davis can cull voter rolls to identify Republican-leaning seniors who don’t have school-age children who would be more likely to oppose tax increases.
Or, if gun rights becomes an issue in legislative race, Davis can identify voters with concealed weapons permits or voters who subscribe to hunting magazines and tailor a mailer for those specific voters.
“This is kind of the spooky science of voter targeting,” McEllhanon said . “There’s a real art and a real science to the whole voter-targeting process as more and more data become available.”
Many people, he said, “don’t appreciate how much data is out there about them.”
They may or may not appreciate the avalanche of political ads that may land in their mailboxes as a result of that data.
Laurie McDowell of Atlanta is currently receiving mail from Chris Boedeker, a Republican trying to unseat state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.
“I’ve gotten two or three pieces of mail from him and four robocalls in the past six days,” McDowell said. “It’s pretty vicious.”
Is it working?
“No, absolutely not,” McDowell, who plans to vote for Holcomb, said. “For one thing it doesn’t say anything about who Boedeker is, it’s just negative about Scott.”
Davis would never have gotten where he is, though, if his techniques didn’t help candidates win.
He got his start when his father, Guy Davis, was the GOP nominee for governor in 1986. Davis saw his father’s campaign struggle to reach blocs of voters that could be persuaded to vote to break Democrats’ lock on Georgia politics.
Voter rolls are created and maintained by the counties. With no statewide computer-based database, getting to the information was difficult.
The state and national Republican parties did their best to collect the rolls, which contained the voting history, age and race of each voter. But even if a campaign could get the data from the party, it was delivered on magnetic tape that had to be translated into code that could be read on what passed for personal computers back then.
Most campaigns weren’t equipped to do that and had to hire data processing companies to make the information usable.
And that, Davis said, “annoyed me.”
Instead, Davis created a computer system that allowed him to take a mainframe reel-to-reel machine and hook it up to a PC. He traveled to different counties to collect the data and feed his creation.
“All of a sudden I got flooded with people wanting data,” he said. His operation, which he dubbed Data Productions, took off. “I remember one year we figured out that just for a primary we had run 17 miles of mailing labels and phone lists and canvassing lists for candidates.”
Years passed and campaigns came and went. Davis He branched out into direct marketing and fund raising for businesses and nonprofits, and was soon shipping mail all over the country.
In 2009, Davis merged his business with MailSort Inc., when he landed a customer that shipped 3 to 4 million pieces of mail a month. MailSort was an established, but non-political, mail house that had become so large the U.S. Postal Service installed a distribution center inside its Lawrenceville site. Davis is now vice president of MailSort.
McEllhanon, who typically uses other mail houses, calls Davis a pioneer.
“For a long time in Georgia he was one of the few, if not the only, guys who did that work,” he said. “He’s very good at it.”
Davis, asked to name a race where targeted mail had a major impact, pointed to the 2006 Democratic primary where U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney was upset by now-U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson.
Davis said he targeted about 45,000 voters, typically Republicans, and encouraged them to crossover and vote in the Democratic primary.
The result? A surge of turnout in largely white north DeKalb County and McKinney was out.
Still, voters have mixed feelings about political mail.
Dr. Henry Anderson of Clayton County said he enjoys getting candidates’ missives in his mailbox. “I like to get them because they’re very interesting,” Anderson said. “They’re very appealing, they’re put together well and they’re eye catching.”
Anderson keeps them, too. He said he has a folder stuffed with every political mailer he has received since 2004.
Even so, Anderson said he’s rarely swayed by them. He stays informed, he said, and knows the candidates.
“Those mailers are targeted for people who don’t know them,” Anderson said.
Perhaps most troubling for professionals like Davis are voters like Brandt Ross of Atlanta.
“The only thing I do with political mailings is put them in the recycle bin where they can do the most good,” Ross said. “If anyone is swayed by written propaganda put out by a candidate or party, they are too stupid to vote in the first place.”