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Politicos Pursue Electoral Victory Through Snail Mail

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Direct political mail comprises an estimated $216 million of federal campaign spending in 2012.
Direct political mail comprises an estimated $216 million of federal campaign spending in 2012.

In this age of political TV ads, robocalls and email blasts, some may be surprised to find good old-fashioned campaign snail-mail arriving in their mailboxes.

But Andrew Kennedy, president and founder of the D.C.-based political direct-mail operation Kennedy Communications, says he believes direct mail is here to stay. Though the term he and his colleagues in the industry prefer is "persuasion mail."

"That was a term that somebody concocted back in the '80s. I started hearing that then," Kennedy says. "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 vote your way in a particular election.

It's not a perfect description of it, but I think it's a whole lot closer than just the broader term of 'direct mail.'"

Kennedy began his career as a campaign manager, where he got a sneak peek at campaign "messaging." And these days, his eight-person team brainstorms messages, and cooks up several-hundred different mail-pieces in the course of a few months, with hopes of achieving victory come Election Day.

Here's the thing, though: in the "persuasion-mail" industry, one doesn't measure success simply by whether they win or lose. For instance, Kennedy says, let's say your candidate wins on Election Day "and we were 30 points down three months earlier. That is a monumental success."

But! If your candidate wins and you were 30 points ahead three months out, "that does not quite convey the same degree of achievement."

And while we're on the subject of "success" and "achievement," here's a question: 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 Kennedy sees it, when it comes to, say, the Internet, "not everybody goes online to find information about candidates," 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, he says, "but they might not even be in the sort of 'voting universe' that you're interested in. Mail was able to prove to campaigns that they could specifically target voters they knew were likely to turnout. And in fact, they could narrow-cast certain messages to certain people within that voting universe."

That said, Kennedy does acknowledge a major downside to political mail: many people simply dismiss it as junk. "That's been a challenge since the '80s, although I think that the sheer volume of it has caused people to look askance at mail in increasing degrees from one year to the next," he says.

Nevertheless, provided political mail is done in targeted, concise and eye-catching ways, Kennedy believes it isn't disappearing any time soon.

But if you look at the numbers, says Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics, "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 in 2012.

"That's a pretty small part of the pie [because] the total pie is going to be several billion dollars when all is said and done, just in federal elections."

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

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

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.

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.

As Biersack explains, "if they send you a mailing and they say, 'the economy's falling apart and taxes are too high, and there are all of 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.'"

But if you broadcast the same kind of message on television, Biersack says, "because we're very close to an election now, the law says that would have to be disclosed."

And speaking of being "very close to an election," back at Kennedy Communications, Andrew Kennedy says it isn't uncommon for candidates to drop mailings at the post office the Friday before Election Day.

"It's always a risk," he says, "and we propose that risk to our candidates. We will say, 'the last word can often be the most effective.'"

He 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 colleagues in the "persuasion-mail" biz are going to keep on keeping on. In snow, in heat, in the gloom of night, and even — in the case of this week, anyway — in sub-tropical-super storms.


[Music: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Mark Whitfield with Sly Smith from Jazz Remakes No. 97]

Photos: Political Snail Mail

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