Dueling Pro Transportation Bond Mailers Split Along Party Lines
Late last month, a case of poorly delivered mail in East Austin led to a political strategy revelation, of sorts. It involved Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million transportation bond and one-half of a local political action committee that attempted to recall Council Member Ann Kitchen earlier this year.
“I tend to get a lot of my neighbor’s mail,” said Tori Moreland in her office on Congress Avenue. Recently, she picked up her mail and noticed two advertisements from the pro-bond PAC, Move Austin Forward.
"You might emphasize different things to different voters. And that’s exactly what the pro-bond campaign is doing."
One mailer placed more emphasis on the bond money that would be spent on sidewalks and urban trails –that one was addressed to her neighbor. The other, addressed to Moreland, focused on the benefits for drivers in the bond.
“He and I have discussed politics in great lengths before,” said Moreland. She tends to vote conservative, while her neighbor is more liberal. Their voter history then, reasoned Moreland, determined which mailer they received.
“For my mail piece, I guess what you could consider the more conservative or Republican or Libertarian even leaning piece, it says '’Pull out lanes for buses so they don’t block traffic,'” said Moreland. “Whereas, in the other mail piece it goes on to say, ‘New and improved bus stops with shelters and benches.’”
It’s basic campaign strategy, said local political consultant Mark Littlefield.
“You might emphasize different things to different voters,” he said. And that’s exactly what the pro-bond campaign is doing. But, this time, it digs into behaviors we might not often consider when taking to heart general assumptions about someone, according to his or her party affiliation. Republicans might be considered fiscally conservative and pro-life; Democrats, pro-government regulation, pro-choice.
A consultant for the pro-bond campaign, David Butts, said the polling they’ve done sought to weed out more about how conservatives and liberals think about getting around.
“Republicans represent a certain philosophy,” he said. “They’re more inclined to see roads and cars as being something that’s absolutely necessary and something we should be trying to accommodate.”
And that seems to play out on a national level. In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a study about party polarization and lifestyles. Researchers found that 75 percent of consistently conservative voters prefer to live in communities with large homes spaced farther apart from one another. But those who consistently vote liberal, 77 percent of them said they prefer to live in a more walkable, urban community.
And, when targeting based on these party-affiliated behaviors, the pro-bond campaign has overlooked very little. Examine the mailers further, and the targeting can be seen in even the photo choice for the front cover. On the more conservative-leaning mailer, it’s a picture of the Loop 360 bridge.
“The intention was the Loop 360 Bridge, which is really sort of more tied into the western side of the city, which is where most conservative or Republican-leaning voters live,” said Butts. The more sidewalk- and bike-oriented mailer features a photo of downtown Austin, "the central city, the downtown, as sort of the identity of the city as a whole," he adds.
Jim Wick, a spokesperson for Move Austin Forward on leave from his job in the Mayor’s office, emphasized that the campaign is relying not just on voter history, but also age, geography and ethnicity, and that the problems the bond claims to solve is non-partisan.
“It really doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican when you’re sitting in traffic,” said Wick. “It’s all the same.”
For Moreland, she is pretty sure her voter history is what got her the more conservative mailer. Moreland lives in East Austin, which leans left. She is also under 30, another demographic that tends to vote Democrat.
“I find it interesting that they did focus my mailer more on car traffic. I’m pretty multi-modal,” said Moreland, who rides her bike to and from after-work spots and on the weekend.