As a resident of Iowa, every four years I get bombarded with presidential campaign ads: TV ads, radio ads, YouTube video ads, sponsored social media posts, billboards…political campaigns leave no surface of this state untouched. Iowans often feel ambivalent about our strange and mostly undeserved role in hosting the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses; sure, on some level it’s an honor and a noble responsibility, but it also gets to be exhausting. The nonstop campaign ads are a big reason why.
This sort of campaign fatigue is especially evident in my mailbox, where seemingly dozens of pieces of campaign junk mail have collected during the past few months. In the interest of democracy, I decided to finally empty my mailbox and sort the campaign mail into orderly piles. Which campaigns’ messages are resonating with this (left-leaning but officially undecided) Iowa caucus-goer??
Let’s take a look at the latest Iowa Caucus Campaign Junk Mail Power Rankings (ranked from lowest to highest):
This campaign’s direct mail is ranked lowest on the list, because, while I was working on this article, Cory Booker dropped out of the race.
I don’t know why Cory Booker didn’t get more traction in 2020. I wonder if he would have run in 2016 instead, if he would have been an exciting fresh face and a more mainstream alternative to Hillary. I know lots of people in Iowa who attended his campaign events and said he was an inspiring speaker and seemed really sincere; maybe he’s one of those politicians who are better when experienced in person.
I wasn’t planning to caucus for Booker, but isn’t it too bad that so much of the “youth” and diversity of the Democratic presidential field (Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris) couldn’t sustain enough fundraising and polling momentum to make it to the Iowa Caucuses?
Pete Buttigieg’s campaign sent me an actual letter, in a white envelope. It was a form letter, two-sided, on plain white paper with no photos. He describes his plan for “Medicare for All Who Want It.” I didn’t make it through the whole letter, but I did skim it. (Who still reads entire letters nowadays? I’m a busy guy!)
According to the latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Mayor Pete was polling in 3rd place in the Iowa Caucus race. Fairly or not, he seems to be carving out a niche as a younger, energetic moderate/mainstream alternative to Biden.
A lot of people in Iowa seem to like Mayor Pete because he’s smart and talented and, for lack of a better word, “Midwestern.” He’s pitching himself as being in touch with the real-world concerns of local people in small towns far from Washington, D.C., and offering a more inclusive tone of leadership, not divisive “my way or the highway” rhetoric.
Buttigieg needs better campaign mail, though! C’mon, Mayor Pete! I’m not young anymore, I can’t be squinting at form letters! Next time, send me something with pictures and vivid headlines, so I can quickly get the gist of it and get on with my life.
I got only one piece of mail from the Biden campaign, and it had a dark, ominous tone. The front cover of the mailer showed the oval office in grey hues, with a headline: “We Live in the Most Dangerous Moment in a Generation. Who is Ready to Lead Us?”
The inside of the mailer answered the question with: “Joe Biden. Strong, Steady Leadership.” It showed pictures of the former Vice President shaking hands with troops and promised “On Day One, Joe Biden is Ready to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”
This messaging is pretty straightforward and low-risk. It’s presenting Biden’s argument that he would be a steady hand and an experienced leader. He’s been in the Situation Room before, he’s been in on all those high-stakes foreign policy conversations at the White House for eight years.
My objection to the messaging in the Biden campaign mailer is: do voters actually care about foreign policy? Also: calling 2020 the “most dangerous moment in a generation” is too pessimistic and not accurate. Most of America’s foreign policy crises at the moment are being caused by America’s horrible president. If America could just get the stupidest person on Earth out of the White House, we would automatically have a better chance of making progress on the world’s shared challenges.
Most Iowa Democrats aren’t preoccupied with foreign policy. They’re mad as hell at Donald Trump, and worried about their jobs, their health care costs, and their children’s disintegrating future under Late Capitalism and Climate Change. Is this Biden mailer, ever so slightly, trying to capitalize on the same “I’m qualified, they’re not” fears as Hillary Clinton’s much-maligned “3 a.m. phone call” ad in 2008 (Spoiler alert: that ad didn’t work either.) Or John Kerry’s 2004 campaign theme to make America “Stronger At Home, Respected in the World?” (John Kerry lost too.)
Tom Steyer is a billionaire, and I won’t be caucusing for him. (And apparently most other people won’t caucus for him either – he’s polling at 2% in the latest Iowa Poll.) Because I don’t want billionaires to exist, let alone have a billionaire president.
However: Steyer is saying some interesting stuff in the seven (7!!) pieces of direct mail that I received. He’s in favor of declaring climate change a national emergency. He wants a 10% tax cut for low-and-middle-class taxpayers. And he’s pushing an anti-corporation message, saying “our democracy has been purchased by corporations who put profits over Iowans.”
Does that message sound less credible coming from a billionaire? Maybe!
Would America be better off if Tom Steyer would drop out of the presidential race and use his fortune to elect Democrats in competitive state legislature races? Most definitely!
If Tom Steyer’s campaign has taught us anything, it is this: if you’ve got a billion dollars, you can buy a lot of direct mail.
Andrew Yang is another long-shot candidate who’s currently polling at 5% in the Iowa Poll, but his messaging in the 2 pieces of direct mail that I received is unique. He’s saying things like “Humans are more important than money” and that we need a new kind of economy that puts people first with human-centered capitalism. His mailers mention his career background as an entrepreneur who helped create thousands of jobs, and a nonprofit leader who is concerned about the human future under AI and automation.
From my own informal surveys of friends, a lot of people in Iowa are intrigued by Yang’s ideas and policy proposals, like his advocacy for universal basic income (the “give everyone $1,000 a month” plan). He seems to appeal to people who are business owners/self-employed. Most presidential candidates don’t have Yang’s entrepreneurial background.
Yang won’t win the Iowa Caucus; he’s kind of a novelty candidate and he’s struggled to gain traction against better-known names like Biden, Bernie and Warren. But for people who are more interested in reform than “revolution,” Yang’s message of innovative public policy and humane capitalism might resonate.
I got two pieces of direct mail from the Warren campaign. One was focused on eliminating student loan debt, and one was more of a biographical piece, talking about how Elizabeth Warren grew up in Oklahoma “on the ragged edge of the middle class.”
Elizabeth Warren is putting that sense of middle-class precariousness at the center of her campaign, talking about how Iowa students graduate with an average student debt of $30,045 and how she’s got a plan to fix it, promising to pay for universal free technical school and 2 and 4-year public universities with a small wealth tax on the wealthiest 75,000 Americans.
Elizabeth Warren could win the Iowa Caucus, unless the recent Sanders-Warren “feud” has hurt her prospects. She has a strong field presence in Iowa, she’s spent a lot of time here, and her messages are well-aligned with the mood of the Democratic party base.
I’m giving Bernie’s campaign the highest rating because their direct mail (and I got 4 mailings from them, all big and glossy and well designed) did the best job, in keeping with the campaign’s “Not Me, Us” theme, of featuring real stories from people in Iowa. (I actually am friends with one of the people whose stories were featured in Bernie’s campaign mailings.)
One story on the campaign mailings was from Rebecca Hovde, who lives in Wellman, IA. She has a rare autoimmune condition called Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome that she controls with medication. A pharmaceutical company bought the rights to market a similar drug, and was going to jack up the price of her pills (which she used to get for free) to $375,000 per year.
Senator Sanders learned about Rebecca’s situation and urged the FDA to allow older versions of the drug so that people like Rebecca wouldn’t be bankrupted by medical bills. In May 2019, the FDA agreed, and Rebecca is now able to keep getting her prescriptions without fear of financial ruin.
The Sanders campaign has a knack for conveying the real human stories and injustices behind complex public policy issues, showing the possibilities of how we can save people from corporate greed and build a better system that works for everyone. I’ve never understood the idea of making fun of people who care about public policy as being “wonks” and geeks. Public policy matters. It’s about people’s lives. It makes a difference to have smart, thoughtful, empathetic people in charge of our policymaking systems, instead of the demons running amok in the White House.
This article is not an endorsement of Bernie Sanders, but he wins the honor of First Place in my highly unscientific 2020 Campaign Junk Mail Power Rankings. Congratulations? If there’s one lesson we can all take away from this experience, it is: living in Iowa gets kind of stressful sometimes, and I really need to empty my mailbox more often.