Just like pumpkins, skeletons and candy corn, political ads are just about everywhere these days. They’re coming at us through our TVs. On signs in our neighbors’ yards. And, of course, in our mailboxes.
According to a study by the United States Postal Service, more than three billion pieces of political mail were delivered to voters during the 2018 midterm election cycle, with spending for political mail campaigns hitting a record high of $573 million. With 2020 being a presidential election year – and a global pandemic preventing candidates from doing much in-person campaigning – experts predict those numbers will climb even higher.
But in our increasingly online world where we’re glued to our phones and our social media feeds, why do politicians continue to spend so much money on snail mail that, for many of us, goes directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin?
Short answer – because it works.
Judithanne McLauchlan, a political science professor at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, said direct mail can be highly impactful in influencing a voter’s decision.
“It’s considered high impact because unlike TV ads, with direct mail, you can be very focused and you can target and microtarget,” she said. “You can talk to the exact voters who you know need to hear your message and that can be really effective.”
The numbers back her up. Nearly half of voters surveyed by the USPS said that political mail had an impact on their voting decision and 53 percent rated political mail as one of the top three most persuasive political advertising techniques.
Vendors who send out direct mail are becoming as savvy as corporate marketers, McLauchlan said, and they use data from a variety of sources to drill down and identify the type of content most likely to appeal to a specific voter. That’s why people in the same household might get different pieces of mail from the same candidate on the same day.
“If you’re non-party affiliated and seen as a swing voter, both sides will target you,” she said, adding that people who have sporadic voting records may get more mail than those who vote regularly. “If you’re a strong Democratic or Republican household, you’d get different types of mail.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules for how often candidates should send political mail, but McLauchlan said it should be often enough for them to break through the clutter and noise of campaign season. Even if people simply glance at a political flier as they toss it, it can go a long way toward establishing name recognition for a candidate, especially for those running in down-ballot races like tax collector. And in some cases, fliers can encourage voters to volunteer or donate money.
Timing is also key to effective mail campaigning, McLauchlan said. With ballots being sent out earlier and more people voting by mail than ever before, nearly a million Floridians have already cast their votes. Candidates don’t have the luxury of waiting until Election Day gets closer to do a big final push.
“Traditionally, voters might have held onto their ballots and voted later, but that’s not what we’re seeing now,” she said.
As for people who’d like to opt out of receiving campaign mailers altogether, McLauchlan said they’re out of luck.
“This is an important First Amendment issue,” she said. “The candidates aren’t trying to sell you something, and while it may be annoying, we should care about who represents us.”
Voters might have better luck stopping messages coming in via text because they can block phone numbers, although with so many allied groups on both sides, there’s no real way to stop the solicitations entirely, McLauchlan said. She predicts technology will play a growing role in how candidates campaign in the future, especially if the pandemic continues.
“Candidates have to be creative in trying to reach voters where they are,” she said.