The Secret Weapon of Modern Political Campaigns: the U.S. Mail

The new science of winning campaigns.
Dec. 6 2011 6:01 PM

The Secret Weapon of Modern Political Campaigns

The mail.

A U.S. Postal Service letter carrier
U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Juan Padilla puts letters into a mailbox as he walks his delivery route

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Campaign consultants who specialize in direct mail might not admit it, but some of them are surely thrilling at the latest U.S. Postal Service cutbacks to first-class service. For years, their challenge was getting a quick look from a voter who might also be juggling freshly arrived love letters, holiday cards, or bank statements. “I knew I wasn’t necessarily competing against my opponent,” says Richard Schlackman, who began producing mail for California Democrats in the 1980s. “I was competing against all the mail that’s coming that day. What’s going to make someone open this mail?”

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

The swift disappearance of most bills and handwritten envelopes from what mailers call “the postal stream” over the last decade has abruptly improved the odds. “Think about how many times you go to the mailbox and there’s nothing there but catalogs,” Peter Valcarce, a Utah consultant who works for Republicans including Scott Brown and Scott Walker, observes with unusual cheer for a man who makes his money off of mail. As our most meaningful, urgent communication continues to move online, the U.S. Postal Service has been forced to end next-day delivery on first-class mail. More than ever, the only competition a political mailer is likely to face on its inevitable path from mailbox to the trash is from other, less civic-minded junk mail.

It’s the next possible step in postal cutbacks, however—to a five-day delivery schedule—that most frightens political mailers. For years, a likely voter’s mailbox on a Saturday before an election has been among the most contested public spaces in American political life, and the disappearance of that one day from the calendar could trigger a series of subtle but important shifts in the tactics of last-minute campaign communication. “When you get close to Election Day you’re just running out of days to communicate, and that Saturday can be really critical, especially if you’re using direct mail as a tool for response,” says Anil Mammen, a mail vendor who works with Democratic candidates and causes. “This makes us even weaker when the speed of response is ever more vital.”

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Indeed, the elimination of Saturday delivery threatens to disrupt a golden era for political mail. Mail may seem poorly suited for our accelerated times: It can often take seven days from imagining a mailer to seeing it in every voter’s hands, and unlike a hastily edited Web ad its content rarely generates free media coverage. But mail remains the one way to guarantee reaching every voter: A mailing address is publicly available as part of every registration record maintained by a board of elections, unlike home or mobile phone numbers, email, or IP addresses.

Thanks to the mail’s precision and universality, no other format for political communication has been so good at exploiting the analytical innovations that have reshaped modern campaigns. Refinements in individual-level targeting have made brochures the most efficient medium for hitting specific households while avoiding their neighbors, and its cost-effectiveness has increased along the way. (Unlike doorstep lit drops, mail requires just cash, not platoons of volunteers.)

Even as congressional backing for the U.S. Postal Service wavers, state officials are putting the mail even more at the center of the political process. The expansion of no-fault absentee voting and new vote-by-mail programs in many states have turned the mailbox into the de-facto ballot box for much of the American electorate. (Two U.S. states, Washington and Oregon, now administer their votes entirely by mail, a move that could be mimicked by other budget-conscious states trying to consolidate their electoral costs.)

Campaign managers have traditionally hoarded their money for a last-minute barrage aimed at late-deciding voters—just as the list of available places to spend money shrinks. In competitive states, often all television and radio time has already been purchased, which pushes ad buyers online, where rates set through auctions can quickly spiral upward. If a campaign doesn’t already have volunteers or paid canvassers lined up (along with the requisite infrastructure of field offices, phone banks, and rented vans) it is often too late to build a ground game. The persistence of robocalls in political campaigns—even as many consultants, backed by considerable experimental research, acknowledge there’s little evidence they have any effect on voter attitudes or behavior—stems from the fact that one can be recorded and blast within an hour, at effectively unlimited volume for pennies per call.

But the most reliable last-minute approach is the mail. Consultants have long known with certainty that a stack of brochures dropped at a postal sorting center on the Thursday before an election will be in voters’ hands on Saturday, or at the latest Monday. (The postal service allows political mailers to mark their shipments with a red tag for preferential handling.) Randomized experiments have exposed traditional get-out-the-vote postcards, emblazoned with pictures of Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan and earnest reminders of civic duty, to be completely ineffective. These days, consultants are looking instead to motivational techniques borrowed from behavioral-psychology research—like thanking voters in advance for their “good citizenship”—or sending along straightforward facts on where and how to vote. “It’s more informational than it is inspirational,” says Pete Giangreco, the Obama campaign’s top mail strategist.

Mail also remains the preferred vehicle for campaigns looking to reach niche audiences on sensitive topics, like abortion or gay marriage, or hot-button issues where strategists want to use harsher language than would go over well in ads, interviews, or debates. When George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign sought to stick a last-minute wedge in the Democratic coalition, graphic designers gathered two of the most controversial images of the time—Osama Bin Laden’s visage and the World Trade Center under attack—and assembled them into a folded brochure that asked, “How can John Kerry lead America in a time of war?” Only by mail could Bush’s advisers select a target audience who wouldn’t cost the Republicans a vote even if they did recoil at the use of the 9/11 attacks: Swing-state residents who appeared to be soft supporters of John Kerry but were regular voters and all but certain to cast a ballot either way.

Anticipation of a Saturday mail surprise is built into the rhythm of many campaigns. Schlackman advises all of his clients to pre-schedule a telephone town hall for Saturday in expectation that the candidate will need a forum to rebut a rival’s charge arriving that day in mailboxes. (Campaigns often track such attacks intended to be surreptitious by identifying their demographically idiosyncratic supporters—like Democratic voters friendly to a Republican candidate—and asking them to scan or fax in all their political mail as they receive it.)

The move toward early voting—which often effectively means that Election Day starts in October and extends for a full month—ensures that by the final Saturday of the race many citizens will not only have made up their minds but will already have voted. Media budgets once written to bankroll four weeks of ads will now need to be rich enough for eight, and campaigns unable to sustain their presence on the airwaves may start looking to shift their efforts elsewhere. Mail programs, too, have had to start earlier—and the lack of Saturdays could mean that a campaign that wants to hit a voter six or eight times, spaced four days apart, will have to start in September. But mail tactics can get smarter over the course of a monthlong voting window. Many local authorities release daily updates on who has voted, allowing campaigns to constantly narrow or refocus their list of targets. An expensive TV buy may keep barraging households who are already out of play.

While the effective demise of other first-class correspondence has strengthened political mail so far, the broader obsolescence of the mail gives reason for long-term concerns. Campaigns have timed their mail programs under the assumption that voters check their mailboxes daily. This week’s announcement by the postal service that it would eliminate next-day delivery guarantees for first-class mail will only make the post even less popular for time-sensitive communication like magazines, birthday cards, and Netflix discs. The possibility that nothing urgent ever arrives scares political consultants—young voters may never develop the habit of regularly looking in their mailboxes. “I don’t mind a five-day postal delivery, except that I think it’s a slippery slope to a four- or three-day postal delivery,” says Peter Valcarce. “We can deal with five, but not four or three.”

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