Political direct mail: That other guy is a kissing cousin of Karl Rove!

In Seattle, election messages have been sharpened for mailboxes, and not just any mailboxes. Here's how a direct-mail campaign works – or how it's supposed to work.
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In Seattle, election messages have been sharpened for mailboxes, and not just any mailboxes. Here's how a direct-mail campaign works – or how it's supposed to work.

Last May, I told the story of the most time-consuming side of campaigning: fundraising, a process I compared to sanding the side of a battleship with a toothbrush.

Now it's time to say what happens to donated money. If you're running for president, senator, or governor, most goes to television. But for those running for local office, you put your money into direct mail. You'll spend at least $150,000 or more on mail if you're running for the Seattle City Council.

All that money for the sort of mail most of us toss with barely a glance.

If this sounds crazy, it is. But if you run for office in Seattle, you'll quickly discover that there are few alternatives. Newspapers and radio aren't effective. Robo calls are cheap but annoying. Web-savvy marketing is insufficient by itself.

So that leaves the good old U.S. Postal Service.

You hire specialists, such as Seattle's Moxie Media, who are wizards at designing mail with clever messages aimed precisely, or so you hope, at the most persuadable.

In Democratic Seattle, there are two kinds of voters: the innies and the outies. The innies are more "progressive" and liberal; the outies are more moderate and, by Seattle standards, a little more conservative. The innies live on Capitol Hill, in Wallingford, etc. The outies live on the outer ring of Seattle, such as West Seattle and western Ballard. A few years ago, the innies were called Greg Nickels voters; the outies were called Mark Sidran voters.

A political consultant will help a candidate decide which voters to target. If you are running against an incumbent, it's always tough, but you look for precincts where the incumbent might show weakness. Tim Burgess most likely did this analysis for his challenge to incumbent Seattle City Council member David Della. (Full disclosure: Last February, I donated to Burgess' campaign.) If you are running with an emphasis on particular issues, you look to see if initiative and other campaigns provide clues for how certain precincts might respond to your intended message. Example: If a precinct voted heavily in favor of a levy for roads or transit, you know voters there want to read your transportation ideas.

If you're starting to feel that your privacy has been eroded, it's true. Although the ballot may be secret, consultants can access a broad amount of information about political preferences of your precinct and perhaps even of you if you blab to surveyors. The Democratic Party, for example, can provide candidates with lists of individual voters with somewhat reliable details on name, address, phone number, age, gender, political tendencies, and voting frequency.

All campaigns target the "perfect voter," the person who has voted in four of the past four campaigns. With limited budgets, you want your mail to reach those who are most likely to vote and most likely to respond to your particular message (environment, crime, values, etc.). For the same reason you would not doorbell a non-voter house, you don't waste mail on a person who doesn't vote.

Generally speaking, the richest vein of targeted voters are older people, say 60 and above. If they are registered, they almost always vote (bless them). So it's no surprise that almost all political mail shows the candidate conversing with a gray-haired person.

If you follow political mail closely, you can spot other standard ingredients, such as mothers with children and a backdrop that establishes the candidate's appealing personality. Environmental themes are always strong in Seattle, but especially heavy this year. Seattle council member Jean Godden looks enraptured in the woods in one photo; she's kayaking against global warming in another – a subtle rebuttal to her challenger, environmentalist Joe Szwaja. In his mailings, School Board candidate Steve Sundquist is shown twice against a green hedge. Burgess has one mailing that is framed by green leaves; Della sticks to the "Seattle values" theme with a photo of a cute little girl riding his shoulders.

A budget of $150,000 or more sounds like a lot. In fact, it's barely enough for the minimum three or four mail pieces aimed at a fraction of city voters. At least one piece is about biography, introducing the voters to the candidate. City Council candidate Venus Velazguez talks about helping her disabled brother; rival Bruce Harrell tells the story of playing Husky football (in the days when Husky football was inspirational).

Most pieces include endorsements. In recent years, everybody wanted Norm Rice. This year, it's hard to find Norm. It's more common to see King County Executive Ron Sims. Among organizations, the gold standard is the Sierra Club, although the Cascade Bicycle Club is gaining prominence. Since Seattle is so Democratic, it's nice to have endorsements of district Democratic groups. Some candidates run a very long list of individual endorsers in small type. The most important business endorsement in Seattle is the Alki Foundation, the political arm of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, but it's not well known. The Muni League is helpful but not as much as in the past.

In close races, it's not surprising to see candidates attack one another. Though Velazquez did well in the primary, she decided to hit Harrell with a piece calling him "another politician who plays both sides." (It's likely she ordered that piece even before her DUI arrest damaged her campaign. Watch to see if she does any mail on that incident.) The toughest mail comes from Della and Burgess. "Tim Burgess supports the values Seattle has consistently rejected," thunders a Della piece, pointing out Burgess' business dealings with an anti-gay, anti-abortion lobbying group. Burgess fired back with a piece showing photos of Della and Karl Rove. "What do these guys have in common?" asked Burgess. "Dirty Campaigning."

Linking anyone in Seattle to Karl Rove may seem like a stretch, but you need Mr. Fantastic to connect a Port of Seattle candidate to George Bush. But that's what incumbent Port Commissioner Bob Edwards does, or tries to do, to challenger Gael Tarleton. I'm not sure I get the connection. Tarleton worked for SAIC, a defense contractor. "Gael Tarleton – Port security from the company that brought you the Iraq war," says the Edwards mailer, featuring a big photo of George Bush.

I get the feeling that next fall, we'll see a lot more mailings with George Bush. But not by proud Republicans. By Democrats, trying to hit Republicans.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.