Mail May Not Be Flashy, but It Helps Win Campaigns

Direct mail ads will flood California voters' mailboxes this month. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Democratic campaign consultant Andrew Acosta has a recurring problem. New candidates come into his office and immediately tell him they want tap into the high-tech world of social media-fueled fundraising and big data -- just like Barack Obama.

“But he spent a ton of money on it,” Acosta said he’ll typically tell the clients. “And nobody can replicate that running for a state office, or state Assembly. So you have to bring them back to reality of -- the mail is how you can be cost-effective and move the message forward.”

That’s right, the mail. It’s a flashy, high-tech world out there, but for the consultants who run political campaigns, one of the most reliable and effective tools for communicating is actually very low-tech.

Sure, well-funded campaigns blanket the airwaves with television and radio ads. And when it comes down to it, those commercials probably move the polls more than anything else. But Republican consultant Tom Ross said broadcast spots also waste a lot of money.

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“Your dollars might be spent advertising to people who A, aren’t registered to vote, and B, don’t even live in the district.”

Micro-targeted Mailers

Direct mail, on the other hand, can be specifically targeted. Not only can campaigns focus on the voters in their district, Ross said publicly-available information lets them focus on narrow demographics.

“Likelihood to vote, party affiliation. We’ll look at their vote history – that’s all on the files,” he said in an interview. “And that’s kind of the top-line targeting that we tend to look at -- maybe age breaks, gender, obviously, as well.”

Campaigns can get even more detailed and purchase information about the sort of magazine subscriptions a voter has to get a better sense of who they’re talking to.

Acosta said they can also figure out exactly when a vote-by-mail voter is likely going to cast his or her ballot so the mailers can be timed just right.

“If you’re an absentee voter who always, like I do, holds their ballot until Election Day and walks it in, I can send mail to them later,” he said. “Versus a Democrat, who, the ballots show up the first week and they vote early -- they’re done. We can target them early. So we can slice and dice it different ways.”

That level of detail allows campaigns to alter their message as much as they need to.

Consultant Tom Ross recalled working on a transportation-funding measure in Orange County. His firm’s polling showed voters were more likely to support the effort if they heard about the specific, local projects it funded.

“We determined we had to do twenty different versions of the same mailer," he said. "Each community got a different mailer with a specific callout ... If this measure passes you’re going to get your intersection fixed. Or you’re going to get a specific road added. Or whatever it might be.”

Of course, those messages can be negative, too. Observers say some of the nastiest attacks often come in mailers, where the messages have the ability to fly under the radar, and maybe detect less scrutiny.

This year, Senate Democrat Alex Padilla pushed unsuccessfully for a bill requiring campaigns to register every voter communication on a central website. That sort of central clearinghouse could bring more accountability to direct mail, though Padilla said his measure was more about creating one-stop shop for voters to research candidates.

“Honestly, with technology these days -- social media -- it’s just as easy to take a picture of a mailer with your phone, put it [online] and challenge candidates in a public way that way,” he said.

'Eight Or Nine Seconds'

With all the digital distractions out there, Ross said the mail is a good way to get attention.

“We’ve got, you know, eight or nine seconds by the time they get it from their mailbox to their recycle bin,” he said.

Compare that to the broadcast commercials voters can fast-forward on their DVR, or the online banner ads eyeballs often ignore.

So campaigns spend a lot on mail. Just look at one of this spring’s most contested primaries – the 28th state Senate District in Riverside County. First-place finisher Jeff Stone’s campaign spent about 40 percent of its overall budget on mailers and postage. Bonnie Garcia, who came in second, spent more than half of her budget on mail. And under the top-two primary system, these two candidates are doing it all over again this fall.

Both Ross and Acosta say the same thing: When they conduct focus groups after the campaign’s over, it’s the messages from their direct mail that voters remember. The voters may not remember where they heard or saw that particular slogan or argument, but they remember its substance.

So brace yourself for a lot of mail over the next few weeks. For what it’s worth, Acosta said he sympathizes.

“I do pity some of the voters who just get inundated with mail,” he said. “And the thing that we’re all aware of -- there’s other people mailing as well. It’s not just the campaigns I’m working on. It’s the city council race, the race for dogcatcher, and all the rest of it. It’s a lot for people to have to sift through.”