The envelopes bear tracking codes, and the letters inside tell recipients they “have been selected to represent voters” in their congressional district, while referring to “[official] documents registered in your name” and a “2020 congressional district census.”
But as official as it appears, the letter is a direct response request for donations to the Republican National Committee (RNC), and has recently arrived at the homes of residents in states including Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York.
The letter specifically says it is “commissioned by the Republican Party,” but some experts who reviewed the materials for Fortune say at best, the package is misleading and, at worst, psychologically deceptive and likely targeting older voters.
But those associated with the GOP disagree and point to some past Democratic fundraising efforts, which they say were more misleading.
Skirting the law?
The congressional census mailings began to appear last year, around the time information about the constitutionally mandated national 2020 census began circulating.
A similar campaign ran 10 years back during the last census, as ProPublica reported at the time. Congress passed a law to prevent anyone from using the approach again.
“I thought we had resolved this issue in 2010 with the passage of my Prevent Deceptive Census Look Alike Mailings Act,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a former ranking member of the Subcommittee on Federalism and the Census, tells Fortune. “[C]learly, the RNC has found a way to skirt the law deliberately.”
The law prevented use of the word “census” on an envelope, outside cover, or wrapper. In the latest mailings, the term did not appear on the outside.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service tells Fortune that a “team of fraud experts reviewed statutes and violations of the Deceptive Mail Act” and that, on review, “the mailings do not reach the threshold required to apply one of the statues under our jurisdiction.”
The psychology of direct response marketing
Direct response marketing rests on the recognition that only a tiny percentage of people who receive an appeal might respond. Frequently, a 1% or 2% response rate is considered successful. Marketers test and adjust all aspects of a campaign to improve the response rate.
Part of envelope design is the inclusion of elements that make the package seem more important, so the recipient will pay attention. Examples are calling the contents “official” or having the phrase “pay to the order to” just visible inside an envelope window, making it appear that a check might be included.
“The old direct mail saying is, ‘You can’t get a response if you don’t get the piece open,” says Kent Syler, a professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University, who formerly worked for the Tennessee Democratic Party, in part developing direct response fundraising campaigns. “I think trying to include it as a government census and making people think it’s an official communication, that is crossing the line.”
An RNC official responded to questions from Fortune by stating that the letter, included survey, response card, and envelope were clearly marked as coming from the organization. In one sense, the text “Commissioned by the Republican Party” might seem to undermine any question about the fundraising program. However, it is still possible for recipients to find themselves misled, experts say.
The mailer creates an impression of an official census document through a number of tactics, such as the outer envelope, the use of the terms “2020 Congressional District Census” and “Census Document,” the capitalization in “Census,” and the design of the response card looking for money, according to Vamsi Kanuri, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
“The moment they see ‘RNC’ and ‘Census,’ since we have a President who belongs to the RNC, people might assume that somehow this is actually an official document,” Vamsi says.
And while red flags may seem obvious to some, Purushottam Papatla, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, says many people won’t read the mailing critically.
“Everything that’s written on that is meant to convey what the intent is and what is being done,” says Papatla.
“This is probably going to an older person that is unaware they don’t have to turn it in or send a check,” says Lindsay Cormack, an assistant professor of political science at Stevens Institute of Technology.
“Psychologically, it’s basically a priming exercise,” says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who thought it might target older people with some cognitive decline. “They’re throwing out words that will prime certain expectations and assumptions.”
Direct response marketing frequently uses such techniques. What crossed the line for Klapow was the response card looking for payment for “processing” even if they didn’t wish to donate, which he calls “clearly deceptive because it doesn’t give you an option.”
Democrats and ‘frugging’
A focus strictly on such fundraising tactics by Republicans “doesn’t display the true state of the world,” because Democrats also use questionable tactics, according to Cormack.
One of these methods is called fundraising under the guise of research, nicknamed “frugging.” A recipient of such a campaign, whether via mail or online, gets a “survey” with a series of leading questions intended to create an emotional state, followed by a request for money. The RNC mailing includes a similar type of survey.
What seems clearly wrong when done by an opposing group, however, sometimes may be forgiven for members of one’s own tribe, resulting in partisan finger-pointing.
Craig Murphy, president of conservative political consulting firm Murphy Nasica, examined the RNC mailer and says it “does not hold a candle” to an email campaign the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) ran for a special election that happened in Texas during January 2020.
That fundraising email stated, “In Texas’ 28th House District, Democrat Eliz Markowitz is currently TIED with her Republican opponent – 42-42 – with only a few days left before Election Day!” After other language, the email included a link for people to donate $10. Markowitz’s opponent, Republican Gary Gates, won the election by 16%.
Murphy says that “polls showed Markowitz down 12-24 points” at the time the email campaign went out. The tight race the DLCC sought money to help win might not have been neck and neck, after all.
“The poll it referenced was the most recent publicly available survey and showed that the race was tied at 42—42,” says Pieter Brower, a DLCC official, in response to questions from Fortune. But that poll came out a full month before. In the fluid situation of an election, the numbers could easily have changed significantly, and there could have been later poll information.
Fortune reached out to Markowitz, but did not receive an immediate response.
On the other hand, Jeff Crosby, who does direct mail consulting for Democrats in Texas and whom Fortune asked about both the RNC mailer and the DLCC campaign, says of the latter, “Good grief, both parties are guilty of lying about polls, and both do so on a regular basis.”
Crosby explains that the way the poll had been done might have skewed the results and says, “Disguising a letter as a legitimate government document is an outdated, discredited trick.”
When it comes to political fundraising, apparently all is fair in love and war—unless the other side does it.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—These are the Democratic candidates who qualify for the next debate so far
—2020 candidates’ positions, and records, on economic issues that affect women
—The case for a national primary
—Fortune Explains: The debt ceiling
—Can Amazon convince a federal court to depose Trump over a $10 billion Pentagon contract?
Get up to speed on your morning commute with Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter.