September 11, 2014

3 Min Read
Political Papering

Here’s the weight and number of campaign mailers that my wife and I received during Maryland’s recent primary election: 4.3 lbs. and 139 individual pieces. So many campaign flyers were mailed out that our neighborhood Listserv complained of “political litter.”

Part of the reason for so much paper campaigning is simple: Maryland was a riot of democracy this year for the primary. We had an incumbent county executive facing off against his predecessor and a vigorous battle for my local county commissioner. In addition, the Free State is unique—while we are like all other states in that we can only vote for one state senator, we also have the luxury of voting for three members of the House of Delegates who run “at-large” within each senatorial district.  Because two incumbents were retiring, that race was particularly hard-fought.   

The other reason we received so many flyers is that direct mail is making a comeback in politics. Politico, a Washington, D.C.–based publication and website for political junkies, noted this phenomenon recently. An August 3 article, “An Unlikely Survivor in the Digital Age: Direct Mail,” described how this particular campaign tool is “thriving.”  More than $150 million has already been spent on direct mail in the 2014 election cycle. 

According to Politico, the enthusiasm for paper is partially because it is less expensive.  This, of course, is especially true for races being waged in a small slice of the Washington, D.C., television market. 

Politico also noted that paper mail allows cheaper and more effective targeting of those relatively small slices of the voting public that can make a difference in a hotly fought election. “Data mining” allows campaigns to closely tailor their message for individual voters and to send them special messages. Television advertising isn’t that sophisticated yet.

I can’t say that our mail was that finely calibrated. The candidates were virtually identical in their positions. In order to differentiate themselves, they insisted they would fight harder than their opponents. As a result, the word “fighting” was one of the most commonly used words in all of these flyers. At times, I thought I was voting for best boxer instead of best legislator.                        

Interestingly, my wife and I were more likely to receive one copy of a flyer that was addressed to both of us, even though we have different last names, rather than two copies of the same advertisement that were sent to us individually. I liked that. It showed a certain fiscal prudence on the part of the candidate. 

Of course, all of the candidates ran as environmentalists. Many used the recycling symbol on their paper mail, but only a few said to recycle it. One said he used recycled fiber, but he only made that claim on his environmental issues mailer. The incumbent county executive touted the success of our recycling program—we have the highest recycling rate in Maryland, and the numbers are actually accurate—while his predecessor failed to mention that the program was greatly expanded during his administration.

Nonetheless, all of this paper was good news for the paper industry and my county’s recycling program. Our direct mail is destined for a recycling mill. Multiply the amount of mail received by our household by all of the other folks in my county and I suspect the recycling rate got a nice boost—which brings me to my last thought: All of those candidates insisted they were strong advocates for the environment, yet only one candidate reminded me how his campaign mail should be recycled. He got one of my votes.

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