The RNC's 'census' forms are not actual census forms

Political parties have been known to send out some sketchy fundraising pitches, but the RNC's fake-census materials are especially tough to defend.
An "imitation census" mailed by the Republican National Committee to addresses in Bozeman, Montana that also solicits money for President Donald Trump's reelection.
An "imitation census" mailed by the Republican National Committee to addresses in Bozeman, Mo. that also solicits money for President Donald Trump's reelection.Montana Department of Commerce
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By Steve Benen

Those who work in the direct-mail industry will tell you that the first challenge of their jobs is getting people to open the envelope. Many Americans, accustomed to (and annoyed by) mail they consider "junk," routinely discard the unwanted solicitations they find in their mailboxes.

As the L.A. Times recently reported, the Republican National Committee apparently believes it knows a way to get people to at least open their fundraising envelope.

The Republican National Committee is sending documents labeled "2020 Congressional District Census" to people in California and across the country just weeks before the start of the official nationwide count of the country's population. Critics say the misleading mailers -- in envelopes labeled "Do Not Destroy. Official Document" and including a lengthy questionnaire on blue-tinted paper similar to the type used by the real census -- are designed to confuse people and possibly lower the response rate when the count begins in mid-March.

Well, yes, of course it's designed to confuse people. If the envelope said, "We're Republicans asking for money," the response rate would likely be far less than with envelopes that read, "Do Not Destroy. Official Document."

The scheme is as brazen as it is unsubtle. In fact, the Democratic National Committee yesterday published online a photo of the RNC's fake census surveys -- which, again, appears designed to confuse those who receive it.

To drive home the point, the Republicans' document includes this specific appeal at the bottom, separate from the request for a campaign contribution, alongside an unchecked box: "I cannot send a donation at that level right now. But I am enclosing $15 to help pay for the cost of processing my Census Document."

It led the DNC to argue, "That's a political donation disguised as a government processing fee."

For those who may not be familiar with political fundraising, it's worth emphasizing that parties, candidates, and campaign committees routinely send out surveys and questionnaires to prospective donors. There's research that shows that people like being asked for their opinions, and when they send back their completed forms, they're more likely to include a contribution.

What's problematic in this case is that the Republican National Committee didn't just send a questionnaire; it sent a questionnaire that seems designed to resemble Census Bureau materials.

When the L.A. Times asked the RNC for comment, if referred questions to Donald Trump's re-election campaign. When the newspaper sought comment from Team Trump, it didn't want to talk about why the materials included multiple "census" references.

There are practical considerations to keep in mind. If, for example, Americans see actual materials from the Census Bureau, and discard them because they think the documents are part of an RNC scheme, the response rate could be lower, which is problematic for all sorts of reasons.

But making matters just a little worse, this isn't even the first time the Republican National Committee has pulled this stunt.

Readers who've been with me a very long time may recall some of my coverage from 2010, when the RNC also sent out deceptive fundraising mailings, with envelopes that included text such as "Census Document" and, in all caps, "DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT."

In an interesting twist, some congressional Republicans were not pleased at the time. Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said of officials from his own party, "They're trying to be deceptive, and it outrages me." Then-Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also requested that his party discontinue its fake-census mailings.

A decade later, is there any chance congressional Republicans will express similar concerns now?