Dead Letter

Writing your lawmaker? Save that stamp.

National Journal
Sarah Mimms and Peter Bell
See more stories about...
Sarah Mimms Peter Bell
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Even in this elec­tron­ic age, many ad­vocacy groups still ad­vise sup­port­ers to send hand-writ­ten­letters to mem­bers of Con­gress. “It really makes an im­pact, es­pe­cially in a time when we’re bur­ied in email,” says one or­gan­iz­a­tion on its web­site. “A hand­writ­ten let­ter gives a per­son­al touch and shows ef­fort on the part of the writer,” ad­vises an­oth­er.

But does the ex­tra work (and cost) really make a dif­fer­ence? In both 2005 and 2010, the non­profit, non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Man­age­ment Found­a­tion asked seni­or man­agers and mail staffers on the Hill about the in­flu­ence of snail mail versus email. In 2005, in an­swer to the ques­tion, “If your Mem­ber/Sen­at­or has not already ar­rived at a firm de­cision on an is­sue, how much in­flu­ence might the fol­low­ing ad­vocacy strategies dir­ec­ted to the Wash­ing­ton of­fice have on his/her de­cision?” 44 per­cent of re­spond­ents said in­di­vidu­al­ized postal let­ters had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 52 per­cent said they had some; 34 per­cent said in­di­vidu­al­ized emails had a lot of in­flu­ence, while 60 per­cent said they had some. In oth­er words, the two types of cor­res­pond­ence were al­most equally likely to have some im­pact, but the postal let­ters were far more likely to have a lot of juice with le­gis­lat­ors. Form let­ters and form emails were both deemed to have sig­ni­fic­antly less power than in­di­vidu­al­ized notes of either kind.

(Peter Bell)By 2010, CMF found, the per­ceived in­flu­ence of both types of cor­res­pond­ence had waned, but the dis­par­ity between the two had also leveled out: 20 per­cent of man­agers and mail staffers who were asked the same ques­tion in 2005 said that in­di­vidu­al­ized postal let­ters had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 70 per­cent said they had some, while 19 per­cent said in­di­vidu­al­ized email mes­sages had a lot of in­flu­ence, and 69 per­cent said they had some. Both kinds of cor­res­pond­ence were still rated as far more in­flu­en­tial than form let­ters or form emails, which staffers viewed as com­par­able to each oth­er.

Bey­ond the in­creased use and ac­cept­ance of email in gen­er­al, there are a num­ber of reas­ons the in­flu­ence of email seems to have reached par­ity with postal mail on the Hill. First, let­ters “don’t really even come in any­more,” ex­plains one House Demo­crat­ic staffer. In the wake of the an­thrax at­tacks on Cap­it­ol Hill in 2001, the en­tire mail sys­tem was re­vamped. The con­tent of all pa­per mail sent to Con­gress is now entered in­to com­puters at an out­side fa­cil­ity. The ac­tu­al let­ters are no longer de­livered. So a let­ter a con­stitu­ent hand­writes on mono­grammed sta­tion­ery ar­rives elec­tron­ic­ally, just as an email would. “They all come in the same way,” the staffer says.

Second, if writ­ing a tra­di­tion­al let­ter is meant to sig­nal the sender’s level of en­gage­ment with or com­mit­ment to an is­sue, con­gres­sion­al of­fices now have oth­er ways to as­sess those things, staffers say. For ex­ample, of­fices have cor­res­pond­ence-man­age­ment soft­ware that can dis­till an email’s es­sen­tial mes­sage, or tell a form let­ter from a per­son­al let­ter based on how much it var­ies from oth­er missives of its kind.

In the­ory, this al­lows of­fices to weight per­son­al mes­sages, no mat­ter how they are sent, more heav­ily than form mes­sages. But do they? “I’d like to think so, but by the time they get to the mem­ber, you say that there were 45 people op­pos­ing im­mig­ra­tion. It didn’t mat­ter if they were form let­ters,” says one House Re­pub­lic­an aide. “So I think it mat­ters more to us at the [staff] level. But in real­ity, by the time it gets to [the mem­ber], I think that in­tent is lost.”

The aide adds that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, a flood of cor­res­pond­ence, of whatever type, will put an is­sue on the boss’s radar — provided that the mes­sages are com­ing from con­stitu­ents. (“Be­cause, I mean if we get tons of form let­ters from out of the dis­trict, we don’t really con­cern ourselves with that as much,” the aide says.)

An­oth­er House Demo­crat­ic staffer agrees, say­ing batches of form let­ters of­ten come in “at the same time as we’re get­ting a bunch of phone calls or a bunch of per­son­al stuff,” so they don’t even both­er to dis­tin­guish between them. They know what they need to know: that whatever people are con­tact­ing the of­fice about is ob­vi­ously “a big is­sue.”

There is at least one way to make that per­son­al let­ter count, however: Get it past the gate­keep­ers. Let­ters that are “par­tic­u­larly poignant” are “def­in­itely set aside” for the boss, says the first House Demo­crat­ic staffer. And those can have a dif­fer­ent kind of im­pact on de­cision-mak­ing. Let­ters that tell a per­son­al story “cer­tainly stick with him,” the staffer says. 

What We're Following See More »
FEELING THE MIDWESTERN BERN
Sanders Upsets Clinton in Indiana
48 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Despite trailing Hillary Clinton by a significant margin, Bernie Sanders wasn't going the way of Ted Cruz tonight. The Vermont senator upset Clinton in Indiana, with MSNBC calling the race at 9pm. Sanders appears poised to win by a five- or six-point spread.

Source:
TRUMP IS PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE
Ted Cruz Bows Out, Effectively Ceding the Contest to Trump
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

And just like that, it's over. Ted Cruz will suspend his presidential campaign after losing badly to Donald Trump in Indiana tonight. "While Cruz had always hedged when asked whether he would quit if he lost Indiana; his campaign had laid a huge bet on the state." John Kasich's campaign has pledged to carry on. “From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” said Cruz. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed."

Source:
TAKES AT LEAST 45 DELEGATES
Trump Wins Indiana, All but Seals the Nomination
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Republican establishment's last remaining hope—a contested convention this summer—may have just ended in Indiana, as Donald Trump won a decisive victory over Ted Cruz. Nothing Cruz seemed to have in his corner seemed to help—not a presumptive VP pick in Carly Fiorina, not a midwestern state where he's done well in the past, and not the state's legions of conservatives. Though Trump "won't secure the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally claim the nomination until June, his Indiana triumph makes it almost impossible to stop him. Following his decisive wins in New York and other East Coast states, the Indiana victory could put Trump within 200 delegates of the magic number he needs to clinch the nomination." Cruz, meanwhile, "now faces the agonizing choice of whether to remain in the race, with his attempt to force the party into a contested convention in tatters, or to bow out and cede the party nomination to his political nemesis." The Associated Press, which called the race at 7pm, predicts Trump will win at least 45 delegates.

Source:
LOTS OF STRINGERS
Inside the AP’s Election Operation
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
THE QUESTION
What’s the Average Household Income of a Trump Voter?
6 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seventy-two thousand dollars, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's higher than the national average, as well as the average Clinton or Sanders voter, but lower than the average Kasich voter.

Source:
×