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Townsend, Ehrlich tailor pitches to blacks, whites


Both fliers suggest that Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the gubernatorial candidate who will fight for Maryland. But inside, the message is very different - depending on whether the intended audience is black or white.

In one, voters are told that Townsend's opponent voted against civil rights protections in an election reform bill. The other talks about his position on a patients' bill of rights.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is doing the same, taking literature that looks almost identical and changing the talking points for whites and blacks.

Tailoring campaign messages for audiences of different races is something that political consultants say has been done for years, but it appears to be even more pronounced in this year's campaign for governor.

"Tailoring a persuasive ad or a communication to a given audience is as old as politics itself," says Richard E. Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University. "There's nothing unethical or wrong about it as long as there's nothing contradictory."

Consider how the Ehrlich campaign varies its message on education reform within a pair of handbills for black and white voters.

For blacks, Ehrlich pledges to "level the playing field between schools in poor and wealthy communities, secure equitable funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and make needed improvements to Coppin State College, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore."

For whites, Ehrlich pledges to "secure adequate funding to ensure success of all schools, implement achievement-based promotion in schools and propose charter school legislation."

The differences in Townsend's "Fighting for Maryland" literature are somewhat more obvious, starting with the cover photographs - a black family for black voters, a collection of children of different races for a brochure intended for a more general audience.

Within the literature aimed at white voters, Townsend promotes the importance of teaching basics and attacks Ehrlich for supporting putting Social Security into the stock market. For black voters, she highlights votes that Ehrlich has taken against increasing the minimum wage and against affirmative action at public colleges and universities.

Not surprisingly, the fliers for African-American voters from both Ehrlich and Townsend promote how they would offer more support to minority businesses seeking state contracts. Neither topic is mentioned in the other sets of literature.

Both campaigns openly acknowledge that their literature is tailored to meet what they perceive to be the interests or hot buttons of different groups, much as they target many of their mailings.

For example, Townsend's campaign offers 24 different sheets of accomplishments - one for each of Maryland's jurisdictions. At a rally for immigrants in Takoma Park, her staff put out a one-page flier in Spanish attacking Ehrlich's record on issues of interest to the Latino community.

"It's simply a matter of common sense that you want to reach out to voters in a targeted way, while doing so within the parameters of the same messages," says Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm. "In a sophisticated campaign, by Election Day you're going to see literature pieces dedicated to a lot of different audiences."

Ehrlich's campaign has a palm card in Spanish and a brochure under development in Hebrew. There's also a four-page "leadership report" aimed just at Montgomery County voters, featuring a complimentary quote from popular Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella and emphasizing transportation needs in the Washington suburbs.

"We never stray from our core message, and we never contradict," says Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "Within our core message, we turn to friends and advisers within various communities and ask for their help in tailoring that message in a way that has the greatest impact."

The adaptation of literature to appeal to voters of different races is simply an extension of what candidates have been doing for years in speeches and appears, say Maryland political consultants.

A candidate speaking to the Baltimore County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, they say, is naturally going to talk about different subjects than in a speech to the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

"In every market in advertising, there's market segmentation, and that's what this is in a very sophisticated way," says Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant who specializes in direct mail.

The pamphlets and mailings reflect the increasing reliance in today's campaigns on focus groups, polling and computerized census data - efforts aided by the millions of dollars that Ehrlich and Townsend are collecting for the general election in November.

"I think it's a function of how much money you have ... because everybody would like to be able to target specific voters in every way they can, but not everybody can afford to do it," says Carol L. Hirschburg, a longtime GOP consultant. "I know that Democrats have been doing this for a long time, and I happen to think it's an effective way to campaign.

"I think Republicans haven't caught on to it, and I'm glad to hear that it sounds like Bob Ehrlich is catching up," Hirschburg says.

Deciding which issues to highlight for which groups of voters is almost always driven by data from polls, Murphy says. "The whole direct mail campaign is polling-driven. It is deductive. It is not inductive."

One other challenge for the campaigns is to avoid becoming so specific that they end up offending the targeted group.

"I think they're walking a fine line between wanting to speak to that group on issues about which they have special concern and patronizing them by saying they have no broader interests," says Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat and political strategist.

"It can be very effective to tailor your message," Kagan says. "But it's a mistake for candidates to narrow their message too much and assume that any demographic community is only interested in a small subset of issues."

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