Constituent Communication Research: A Snapshot from Long Past

Political culture has changed a great deal, and this is not a “get off my lawn” post. In fact, as alienating and uncivil as much current political discourse seems, there’s a level of directness and candidness that earlier eras lacked, giving them a feel of artificiality and stuffy elitism. 

Take, for example, a research article published back in a 1969 issue of the Journal of Politics. Titled “The Missing Links in Legislative Politics: Attentive Constituents,” the article by G. R. Boynton, Samuel C. Patterson, and Ronald D. Hedlund sought to describe a kind of constituent that was a cut above the rest, part of the “thin stratum” between the masses and “the upper layer of the political elite,” and seen as a critical sub-elite maintaining democratic dialogue. Curiously beginning in what they admitted was “a particular intra-elite context,” the scholars observed that both “attentive constituents and legislators differed markedly from the general adult population in terms of occupational status . . .” and that these special constituents were in constant communication with legislators and even recruited people to run for office.

Today, even if we acknowledge that some citizens are more engaged than others, that people benefiting from education and stable material lives can share their privileges by proactively participating in political and civic life, we are rightly hesitant to paint such citizens as part of superior substrata. We know that poor and working class people engage too when they can, that community engagement is often (though admittedly not often enough) facilitated by civic, religious and political interest groups across a wider range of economics and demographics than was supposed fifty years ago. 

We also know that high-level involvement doesn’t automatically correlate to helpfulness or the strengthening of democracy. We know that elite groups often engineer a great deal of spin, and that both privileged and disadvantaged populations are vulnerable to misinformation. Involvement and access are more complicated than Bounton, et al’s worldview reflected.  

Political science and communication scholars carried different assumptions back then — and even began with different questions. Today, much of the research is geared towards identifying bad hierarchies, undesirable ways in which constituent access is blocked or limitations are set on how communication may occur between people and the leaders they elect. This may include how letters and emails are processed, such as in Matthew J. Geras and Michael H. Crespin’s study, published this year, concluding that high-ranking staffers answer socially powerful constituents, while “[l]etters from women and families . . . are more likely to be answered by lower-ranked staffers. These results are important,” the authors conclude, “because they reveal that even something as simple as constituent correspondence enters a type of power hierarchy within the legislative branch where some individuals are advantaged over others.” Mia Costa’s dissertation, published last year, gives an interesting corollary conclusion: Not only are female constituents devalued, but female legislators are held to an unfairly high standard by their own supporters, including supporters who believe more women in elected office would be desirable. “In fact,” Costa argues, “it is individuals that hold the most positive views of women that then penalize them when they do not provide quality responsiveness to constituents” — a fascinating conclusion that invites further study.

Current research also suggests that elected officials have a sore spot when dealing with constituents who engage in what James N. Druckman and Julia Valdes call “private politics,” or what others would call “direct action” or attempts to influence change outside of the legislative process — things like boycotts, strikes, other direct or demonstrative tactics. Druckman and Valdes report finding that “a constituent communication that references private politics vitiates legislative responsiveness . . . reference to private politics decreases the likelihood of constituent engagement among both Republican and Democratic legislators.” The authors think that these findings call for collective, foundational “conversations about how democracies work” since elected officials ought to appreciate, rather than be intimidated or irritated by, extra-electoral constituent action. 

And through all of this data, as the OpenGov Foundation Study suggests, much of Congress still uses very old communication management technology. One researcher says it’s like “entering a time machine.” Beyond not looking at the power hierarchies of gender and class, the 1969 study also didn’t look at the challenges of staffing in a world of scarce resources. “When advocacy groups target thousands of calls or emails at a single member of Congress, it’s these low-level and in some cases unpaid interns and junior staffers they inundate.” Simply put, it is a nightmare to handle these communications without having CRM software built specifically for the government.

The questions today’s constituent communication researchers ask are thus very different from whether some special elite civic group exists to influence political leadership and how educated and well-connected such constituents are. Today’s research strikes at the heart of material and cultural power imbalances. Until those imbalances are corrected, we need scholars and advocates to continue asking tough questions about practical democracy. 

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Meeting Constituents’ Real Needs Means Innovating Constituent Tech

I’m thinking about technology, political culture, and constituent accessibility. What often appears to be a problem of political culture (staff blowing off certain constituents, young hotshot staffers not being able to relate to the challenges of elderly constituents, that kind of thing) might actually be a problem of technology (not having the right tools to organize constituent inquiries or comments at point of reception).

It helps to remember that elected officials are often expected to do much more than the normal list of legislative or executive functions. A Wired story has this anecdote of a military veteran in Massachusetts who misplaced an important piece of mail from the Veteran’s Administration. The letter explained how they could access their benefits, but that information wasn’t packaged well. It occurred at the end of the six-page (!) letter. The veteran contacted the staff of Rep. Seth Moulton, whose Deputy Chief of Staff didn’t just respond by investigating legislative options to address the culture that created such confusion; the staffer actually began by making sure the veteran was able to access their benefits—an administrative or service function that falls well outside the strict boundaries of a legislator’s job.

This was not a constituent complaining about politics, taking a side in a debate, sounding off on some ideological divide. It was a constituent who needed their basic services and benefits. How many contacts might staff receive about accessing services? Who knows? But at a time when the average House member gets 123,000 emails a year (almost triple the number they received on average in 2001), certainly many of these will be about non-legislative/apolitical matters, and this makes it even more clear that institutions have to adapt to new methods of communication in a world where there’s one member of Congress for every 747,184 people.

One of these adaptation needs is an efficient method of separating those who want to weigh in on or engage in deliberation about law and policy from those who may have encountered problems with public services. Non-responsiveness is bad enough in general (and it happens far too often), but it’s especially bad when the inquiry was from someone with a serious unmet need. 

If constituents are sometimes ignored in normal circumstances (and is being on a Congressional staff ever normal?), it’s easy to see how large sections of the constituency can slip through the cracks when public issues get heated—as they have been every single day of the current presidency, for example. In a recent New Yorker article—definitely worth a read—on the effectiveness of phone calls, letters, and emails to elected officials, we find an astute observation about how crises jam up staff phone times, which crowds out less politically charged concerns. “In normal times, then—which is to say, in the times we don’t currently live in—calling your members of Congress is not an intrinsically superior way to get them to listen. But what makes a particular type of message effective depends largely on what you are trying to achieve. For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.” While the point of the article was to assess effectiveness, I am fixated on the “occupying staff” phrase, because I picture staff sitting on phones all day taking calls from energized people, but unable to process a veteran’s urgent question about benefits.

The same article traces the history of political advocates’ and lobbyists’ manipulation of communication technology to influence political outcomes, beginning with a 1928 campaign by an oil and gas company to get people to make telephone calls in opposition to a gas tax. A century later, “constituent communications account for twenty to thirty per cent of the budget for every congressional office on Capitol Hill.” And the evidence and anecdotes about overworked staff indicates that this is not enough.

Of course, increasing the budget isn’t the answer if you want to remain popular in your district. One potential solution is philanthropic grants, such as those available from the Democracy Fund and its affiliate, Democracy Fund Voice. Intended “to address the disparity between the tools available to Congressional staff and the technological innovations of the digital advocacy industry,” the grants put the tech in the hands of elected officials’ staff, and incentivize further innovation and development. They include apps that can process data in addition to enabling constituent communication, giving those offices “a clearer picture of district sentiment in the aggregate.” And for good measure, they let members of Congress demonstrate their commitment to pushing away from Facebook, so that members won’t fear their personal data being mined on official Congressional pages.

So, in the end, management of technology, political culture, and constituent accessibility hinge on resource questions. Members of Congress can’t be perceived as shirking their duty to help constituents navigate bureaucracies and meet needs, but they’re constantly managing political disputes and crises. We need to find more ways to get appropriate new technology in the hands of their staffers.

Seniors See Expanded Benefits Under Bernie Sanders Medicare for All Plan

Seniors See Expanded Benefits Under Bernie Sanders Medicare for All Plan

The simplest, clearest description of how Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders signature “Medicare for All” proposal would affect seniors comes from PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site run by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists:

Under Sanders’ plan, after a four-year transition period, all [Medicare] components would be replaced with a health care plan that includes vision, hearing and dental coverage, as well as stronger financial protections.

There would be no premiums or cost-sharing requirements, other than limited cost-sharing (up to $200 per year) on prescription drugs. Patients would be allowed to go to any provider, not limited by a network.

“Medicare for All expands Medicare, does not obliterate it, as Donald Trump says,” PolitiFact, November 2, 2018

PolitiFact jumped into the debate over the impacts of Sanders’ reform because of Donald Trump’s lies. However, it isn’t just Trump lying about Medicare for All. Health insurance is a trillion dollar global industry – and the Sanders plan would do away with them. In the Medicare for All proposal’s “single-payer” model, the federal government would pay all health care provider bills.

The health insurance companies and their network of subsidized allies (subsisting on consulting retainers, foundation donations) are going to work even harder than Trump to scare seniors about the Sanders plan. They will lie.

Here is an example from National Review (I am purposefully not linking to the article, which I will explain fully below):

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Now that we’ve laid the groundwork – Sanders’ Medicare for All plan will greatly benefit seniors – let’s look at how information companies are promoting falsehoods about Medicare for All. And how we can fight it.

Google searches account for two-thirds of all search traffic in the U.S. And topical searches surge when an issue is in the news or on the ballot – sometimes spiking tens or even hundreds of thousands of times vs. average traffic for a search term. It is no hyperbole to estimate that tens of millions of seniors and their family members will search for the impacts of Medicare for all on their household. It is likely that most Americans will find information about Medicare for All through a Google search before the November 2020 presidential election.

And there is already a big problem for proponents – like me and Senator Sanders – of single-payer Medicare for All.

Searching for “Medicare for All” and “Sanders” will provide results that are reasonably balanced – including Sanders’ Senate site, prominently. 

However, pop on over to search results for “seniors” and “Medicare for All,” and the results are dramatically different. And while search volume is lower here today, you can bet that as we get closer to key dates in the primary, health insurance industry consultants will be doing everything they can to drive a wedge between seniors and Sanders and the other Medicare for All Democrats. (Sanders greatly outperforms among young people, but older voters – the current Medicare demographic – are showing some preference for a conservative Democrat like Joe Biden, or for Donald Trump. Groups like Silvers4Sanders are working to change that.)

The search results for seniors and Medicare for All are heavily loaded with health insurance industry propaganda published through opinion columns in mainstream publications. Only a handful of results are neutral, and none are pro-Medicare for All.

So how do supporters of single-payer Medicare for All combat this? Well, we have to get a bit technical. It’s something we used to call, “link juice.”

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Search engines like Google may run on the advertising that crowds the top of your results, but to remain relevant, they must present the most accurate search results possible. But they do this with data signals interpreted by software programs that are much less sophisticated than human brains (if you’re up for a foul example, just Google “Santorum”).

Why would searching for the impacts of Medicare for All on seniors give such biased results? Well, the insurance companies and their allies have great credentials and connections and paid PR agencies that help them place misinformation and propaganda in mainstream news outlets as “opinion.” However, Google does little to distinguish opinion from “news” results and gives a lot of prominence to more mainstream, establishment publications that include more objective reporting along with opinion.

Thankfully, just like millions of small donors have made Sanders the presidential frontrunner, we can do the same for Medicare for All and overcome the machine-like use of the existing system of privilege. We can have health care for all with no provider cost to the patient. We can make sure that Seniors who search Google for Medicare for All get the fair and full story.

Just like big donations can make a candidate appear strong, health insurance companies and their allies hope their publications (and TV appearances, of course) will fool seniors. No!

Please talk to your progressive friends who have blogs. Share this blog post with them. Ask them to write their own blog post that supports Medicare for All. Ask them to link descriptions of Medicare for All’s benefits for seniors to honest third-party descriptions of Medicare for All – particularly those that already show up high in search results.

A couple examples from searches today:

Medicare for All Will Benefit Seniors a Great Deal

Improved Medicare For All: Better Care at a Lower Cost for Seniors

Don’t link to lies about Medicare for All.

Let’s send thousands of signals to Google that tell its search engine where to find good information about Medicare for All and seniors.

The fight for Medicare for All isn’t just on the internet – across the U.S., we’re going door to door with National Nurses United. Sign up here to help reach people in your neighborhood with the truth about Medicare for All. 

We also have to reach seniors by mail – the kind of data demographic sorting of consumer information where I rely on longtime client and partner Accurate Append.

Every senior in every family in the U.S needs to hear about the benefits of Medicare for All – including dental, vision, hearing aids, and long-term care – in face-to-face conversations, by mail, by truth-tellers in the media, and when they type a search into their browser.

Sailing the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands

The first time I came out to Puget Sound was in my mid 20s. I was interviewing for a reporter position with the Tacoma News-Tribune. I marveled at the size of Mt. Rainier looming over the Sound. My hotel had a wooden deck that allowed me to walk out and look at the big moon jellies bobbing in the blue-green water.

After reporting for a morning (I didn’t take that job), I went out to a recreation area and spent an hour or so picking up jellyfish with a plastic cup and lobbing them back into the water. My hands got only a little bit numb. Tacoma is very beautiful, and whenever I’ve spent time up there, it’s sunny.

Many years later (yes, I’m getting that old), I sailed for the very first time, again in the Puget Sound. My host was Chris Nichols, president of my long-term client Accurate Append. The water was a bit rough so we spent a lot of time under power, but on the way back I got a profile-worthy shot at the helm. I worried over knots and clumsily helped tie the boat at our various docking points.

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Nothing about my early trips to the Seattle area came close to my experience taking out a 37-foot cruiser for a nearly week-long tour of the San Juan Islands. There are officially 172 islands and reefs that make up the San Juans, but only four are served by ferry. A handful more are popular for boating tourists. With enough time, fuel, and wind, the San Juans are perfect for a sleepy sail. You’ll enjoy beautiful sunsets, admire remote houses built up on the pristine island hillsides, and tie up in tranquil bays and inlets with other sailors. You can also take advantage of one of the many island harbors with fuel for both boats and hungry and thirsty sailors. The best portside amenity after a few days will be the quarters-fed pay showers!

On my first full San Juans adventure, four of us – plus a Boston Terrier! – piled onto the Lucy Jane. With a full larder and three two-man berths, we still had plenty of room to move about above and below decks. I will say, though, that 6’3” doesn’t quite fit well in a sleeping berth – I knocked my head and elbows a few times, and did some gymnastics moving around my partner to get to the head or up in the morning.

I’ll write more elsewhere about what it’s like to go ashore and explore the islands. The sailing adventure is a tale of its own.

On our week-long voyage, we hit Sucia Island, Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Blakely Island Marina, and Spencer Spit State Park. While we motored around a bit due to a couple of unseasoned deckhands (yes, me and my partner!), we also took advantage of good weather to cut half circles between the islands. I kept a close eye on the navigation and depth finder – you don’t want to be one of those discovering an obscure reef! But other than wandering into Canadian territory and getting in trouble with customs, the San Juan Islands are friendly for newer sailors. Our boat was part of the Windworks Sailing fleet, and sailing lessons are available for those who aren’t going out with a seasoned skipper.

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Spencer Spit was one of my favorite spots, and, not to spoil my second post, my experience watching tiny hermit crabs in a stream feeding to the beach was transcendent. The longer I started into the pool, the more crabs I could see, like stars on a clear night. Clear night skies are another benefit of sailing the San Juans!

Just a couple hours outside of Seattle and a short sail from Anacortes, the San Juans are a treat that no sailor should miss.

Email marketing isn’t going away – better get yours right

guest post by Jeff Swift

Email marketing is an incredibly resilient strategy. Despite regular predictions of its demise – often citing the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Google Wave (RIP), and now SnapChat – email simply isn’t going anywhere. People open their emails. They click on links in their email. And they are motivated to donate by high quality emails.

When email is done right, it’s incredibly powerful. When it’s done wrong, it can be a disaster. Three of the most common email mistakes are easy to commit and often difficult to address:

  1. Emailing the wrong people
  2. Sending the wrong content
  3. Ignoring your audience

Emailing the wrong people

Sending an email newsletter out without having accurate data is like walking blindfolded across the street. There’s a chance nothing will happen, but it’s a bad idea.

Not only should you know your recipients’ names and email addresses, but you should ideally know quite a bit more about them. If you know their zip code, for example, you’ll be able to just send them emails about events in their area. If you know basic consumer information – what magazines they subscribe to, for example – you’ll know whether you should reference the outdoors or video games in your next email.

Email inboxes are very personal spaces. People have no problem clicking unsubscribe or marking as spam if they don’t feel the email is sent specifically to them.

The right people will know that a newsletter is meant for them. Don’t send to the wrong people. Email and demographic appends are worth the investment – as long as you use them!

Sending the wrong content

Now that you’ve got your audience sorted out, it’s time for the easy part: writing the actual email.

Nothing is more unnerving to a writer than a blank screen. That blinking curser just taunts you. Fortunately, with accurate data on your audience, you never have to start with a blank screen again. Make a list of what you know about your audience – do they prefer electric cars or NASCAR? Do they mostly live in big cities, or are they spread out across the countryside?

Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to see in your inbox, if you were them?

When you hit that sweet content spot, you’ll know. Your open rates will climb, your click rates will meet your goals, and your list will grow.

The wrong content won’t get anywhere.

Ignoring your audience

Once you’ve got the right audience and the right content, it’s time to click send. But that’s not the end of it.

Your audience will give you invaluable information with every email, as they open, click, forward, unsubscribe, or take action on your website.

When you find something that works well, do it more often. When something flops, make sure you don’t do it again.

This sounds like obvious advice, but the fact is that many email lists are used like billboards – they just broadcast information out there and don’t bother to see how it’s received. Honor your investment in the data you collected about your audience and be willing to accept data directly from them.

Get started

Using data in email campaigns sets you up to succeed. Learn about your audience, target emails accordingly, and make sure to learn as you go.

Is the wrong kind of data killing the Democratic Party?

Last week in Politico, Dave Gold, founding partner of the mail firm Bouchard Gold Communications, wrote that over-reliance on data models since Obama’s 2008 campaign has contributed to the epic fails of the Democratic Party: loss of 63 seats and control of the House, loss of 11 seats and control of the Senate, loss of 13 governorships, loss of over 900 state legislative seats and control of 27 state legislative chambers.

“We Democrats have allowed microtargeting to become microthinking. Each cycle, we speak to fewer and fewer people and have less and less to say,” Gold writes.

While you can expect that a mail consultant would argue for a larger contact universe, Gold’s argument for storytelling and focus on emotion is compelling, and Gold’s piece is worth a close read (it was shared heavily among my political Facebook friends, so there’s some agreement here). Gold also backs up his points with results from the difficult-for-Democrats Harris County, Texas, where an independent expenditure he advised “helped Democrats win every contested race in Harris County for the first time in a generation, including the district attorney, sheriff and 30 judicial races.”

I tend to agree with Gold that microtargeting efforts can cause more harm than good if they lead to contacting smaller universes. Micro-messaging – telling different voters different stories, can take the benefits of data and use them to drive increased turnout.

When it comes to voter outreach efforts, it’s accurate and complete data that really makes a difference. When you can only robo dial landlines, you need complete landline coverage. When you can text cell phones with apps like Hustle, Relay and Handstack, you need more cell phone numbers. And when you’re using Facebook ads or email to reach voters, you need phone numbers and emails for accurate custom audience matching.

And despite advancements in campaign tech, accurate data isn’t the easiest to come by. That’s where Accurate Append, one of my longest-running partners from NationBuilder and The Adriel Hampton Group, comes in. They provide data append services for campaign vendors and directly to campaigns, and their email append and verify products improve both ad targeting and delivery rates. If big data is killing campaigns, perhaps better data can help save them.

Now, you have a friend in the data business

Whether you’re running a marketing campaign, or a political campaign, data integrity and completeness is essential. I work for, and buy product from, phone append vendor Accurate Append because they’ve been leaders in data quality for decades. Data quality isn’t just having access to many sources – it requires innovative approaches to merging that data and good judgement in what to keep and what to throw away.

Data quality is a big problem for political campaigns. Poor data quality mars polling, stops folks from voting, and results in multiple records for each one of use in different databases in different regions, states and on different companies’ servers. Here’s where the highest quality data comes in handy:

Get more of your mail delivered. While you can often trust Gmail addresses as valid, records from voter files change – and emails addresses don’t change in sync with physical addresses. Good data hygiene reduces email bounces and improves your sender reputation with ISPs.

Email matching for your tech program. Accurate email addresses are critical to building strong custom Facebook audiences, reducing advertising costs. For political campaigns, they also increase matches with services like VoterCircle, which you can use to enlist supporters in peer-to-peer canvassing.

Reach more supporters with accurate cell phone numbers. Open rates for texting are a magnitude higher than open rates for email. Instant lead validation on entry for all of your forms (possible with Accurate Append’s Gravity Forms OSDI WordPress plugin) makes sure you have the right numbers for texting, and line typing ensures you’re differentiating between contact methods for home, work and mobile numbers. You’ll appreciate accurate phones at every step of your operation – there’s nothing that discourages volunteers or lead gen staff faster than wrong numbers.

Save on your mailing costs: Mailings can run as high as $1 each – that means bad addresses can cost hundreds or thousands in wasted mailings, and a heck of a lot of waste. Consumer and postal mail updates mean more of your targeted mail reaches the bullseye.

To use Accurate Append efficiently, remember my tip to first remove the Gmail addresses – until some other email service eclipses the efficacy of Google’s service, those are going to be golden and don’t need much cleaning or updating. If you need phone numbers beyond the U.S., Accurate Append offers Canadian phone append. Another way to save is to narrow your target universe before sending over your file – don’t waste time or money with an unwieldy file. Remember to source complete data that allows you to reach your supporters on the most reliable channels – email, phone, doors. You can also narrow your outreach by adding donor histories and donor models to your contacts as a custom service from Accurate Append. And if you’re trying to register new voters, try their consumer file filtering to identify likely unregistered, eligible adults.