Politicos Pursue Electoral Victory Through Snail Mail (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Politicos Pursue Electoral Victory Through Snail Mail

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
We move now from the calm after the storm to the calm before. Though in the case of this next story, the storm we're referring to isn't so much the inclement type as the electoral type. Election day 2012 is just around the corner, folks. And for months now, candidates have been speech stumping, hand shaking and baby kissing across the country in hopes of swaying your voting choice come November 6th.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:26
And, of course, they haven't done it alone. They've had help from a bunch of sources like TV ads.

GOV. MITT ROMNEY

00:00:32
I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

00:00:34
I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message.

SHEIR

00:00:36
Phone calls...

SHEIR

00:00:38
...and as anyone with a mailbox knows...

MR. ANDREW KENNEDY

00:00:40
What's in here, oh...

SHEIR

00:00:42
...snail mail.

KENNEDY

00:00:43
This, for example, is an 8-1/2 by 13 jumbo card, they call it. It's larger than a normal sheet of paper. So it actually really sticks out in the mail.

SHEIR

00:00:51
And Andrew Kennedy is all about sticking out in the mail. I visited Kennedy last week at his office, tucked away in Northwest D.C.'s Blagden Alley. Kennedy is President and Founder of Kennedy Communications.

KENNEDY

00:01:03
And we're a direct mail operation, basically specializing in what we like to refer to as "persuasion mail."

SHEIR

00:01:10
I'm curious about that term, "persuasion mail," where did that come from?

KENNEDY

00:01:14
You know, that was a term that somebody concocted back in the '80s. I started hearing that then and I actually thought it was fairly accurate because this is not fundraising. This is really just persuading voters who might otherwise be undecided to, sort of, vote your way in a particular election. And, you know, it's not a perfect description of it but I think it's, sort of, a whole lot closer than just the broader term of direct mail.

SHEIR

00:01:37
Kennedy began his career as a campaign manager actually, and that's where he got a sneak peak at campaign messaging. And these days, his eight person team brainstorms messages and cooks up several hundred different mail pieces.

KENNEDY

00:01:49
In the course of a few months, making various arguments to various constituencies, and hopefully, you know, win as many campaigns as possible.

SHEIR

00:01:57
Here's the thing, though, in the persuasion mail industry, you don't measure success simply by whether you win or lose. For instance, let's say your candidate wins on Election Day.

KENNEDY

00:02:06
And we were 30 points down three months earlier. That is a monumental success.

SHEIR

00:02:11
But if your candidate wins and you were 30 points ahead three months out...

KENNEDY

00:02:15
That does not quite convey the same degree of achievement.

SHEIR

00:02:19
And while we're on the subject of success and achievement, here's a question for you, in this brave new digital world where the U.S. Postal Service is bleeding red ink, so to speak, how is political mail successful at all? Well, the way Andrew Kennedy sees it, when it comes to, say, the internet...

KENNEDY

00:02:35
Not everybody goes online to find information about candidates.

SHEIR

00:02:39
Whereas everybody physically gets their mail. Plus, he says, direct mail can micro-target and narrow cast to sprinkle in some fun industry jargon. So, sure, you can broadcast a TV ad to enormous numbers of people...

KENNEDY

00:02:52
But they might not even be in the sort of voting universe that you're interested in. Mail is able to sort of prove to campaigns that they could specifically target voters they knew or were likely to turn out. And in fact, they could narrow-cast certain messages to certain people within that voting universe.

SHEIR

00:03:11
That said, Andrew Kennedy does acknowledge a major downside to political mail, many people simply dismiss it as junk.

KENNEDY

00:03:18
And that's been a challenge even since the '80s, although I think that the sheer volume of it has caused people to look askance at mail, you know, in increasing degrees from one year to the next.

SHEIR

00:03:30
Nevertheless, Kennedy says, provided political mail is done in targeted, concise and eye-catching ways, he believes it won't disappear anytime soon. But if you look at the numbers...

MR. BOB BIERSACK

00:03:41
It's probably a relatively smaller portion of the total pie of campaign activity. As far as money goes, this year, we think it totals about $216 million so far.

SHEIR

00:03:52
Bob Biersack tracks money in U.S. politics at the Non-Partisan, Non-Profit Center for Responsive Politics. And that's a small part of the pie?

BIERSACK

00:03:59
And that's a pretty small part of the pie, yeah. The total pie is going to be several billion dollars when all is said and done, just in federal elections.

SHEIR

00:04:07
Now, granted that $216 million is up from $211 million in 2008. But those, Biersack says, are just estimates.

BIERSACK

00:04:15
There are a lot fewer rules about how you disclose what you're spending money on, than there are about how you disclose what -- where you're getting money from. And so it means the way in which people describe what they're doing is a lot more flexible and freeform.

SHEIR

00:04:29
So what one campaign describes as direct mail, another may describe as something else. In other words, you say potato, I say po-tah-to. That's tricky.

BIERSACK

00:04:38
The world's a tricky place. Regulation of just about anything like that becomes more and more complicated over the years.

SHEIR

00:04:45
Then there's the issue of language in mailings. If organizations don't explicitly use terms like Vote For, Vote Against, Elect or Defeat, as far as disclosure goes, they're in the clear.

BIERSACK

00:04:56
If they send you a mailing and they say the economy's falling apart and taxes are too high and there are all these terrible things happening, call President Obama and tell him to do something about these problems. That's not what, technically, under the law is called expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.

SHEIR

00:05:15
As opposed to the same kind of message on television...

BIERSACK

00:05:18
Which because we're very close to an election, now, the law says that would have to be disclosed.

SHEIR

00:05:22
And speaking of being very close to an election, back in Blagden Alley at Kennedy Communications, there's a dry erase board, a white board as you walk in and it says, Days till E-day, Days till last drop.

KENNEDY

00:05:34
Yeah, last drop. Drop is a term we use for the day that we drop it at the post office.

SHEIR

00:05:39
So as of today, as of this interview, days till Election Day, 11 days till last drop, seven.

KENNEDY

00:05:45
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:05:46
So are you trusting that in those four intervening days everything will get where it needs to go?

KENNEDY

00:05:50
It's always a risk and we propose that risk to the candidates. We will say the last word can often be the most effective.

SHEIR

00:05:58
Andrew Kennedy says this strategy's worked pretty well through the years. Though he admits, the growing popularity of early voting has complicated things. Still, he says, he and his persuasion mail colleagues, plan to keep on, keeping on, in snow, in heat, in the gloom of night and even, in the case of this week anyway, in subtropical pre-election superstorms.

SHEIR

00:06:30
Time for a quite break, but when we get back, we'll scoot around two more local neighborhoods in our regular segment, "Door to Door" and revisit a monumental election that took place a century ago. Plus, we'll learn the way Latino voters could shape the outcome of Virginia's elections.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1

00:06:45
I just want to hear that they're going out to vote. That's all I want to hear. I don't want -- I don't care, like, what they're for, what President they're voting for. It's just that they're actually going out and voting. Like, that's all that's really important.

SHEIR

00:06:56
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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