Political mailers fill a mailbox in Saco earlier this month. The volume of campaign mail in Maine is straining a postal system already short on staff, says Mike Seitz, union president of Maine State Association of Letter Carriers Local 92. Photo Illustration by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In his 17 years with the U.S. Postal Service, Mike Seitz has never seen anything like the deluge of political campaign fliers that are filling up Mainers’ mailboxes – and recycling bins – this year.

“It is making everybody work a lot longer hours, for sure,” said Seitz, a postal carrier and union president of Maine State Association of Letter Carriers Local 92. “You get six, seven, eight mailers a day. They’re not going to every house, but it takes a long time to (sort) them out.”

In this era of data-driven messaging, campaigns cull voter registration rolls, voting history and even whether someone has returned their absentee ballot yet this month to micro-target mailers.

Independents who still haven’t voted this year? The Democratic and Republican parties really – no, really – want to tell you about how Sara Gideon and Sen. Susan Collins are either building Maine’s future or selling out to special interests. Republicans in the 2nd Congressional District are hearing all about how President Trump is making Maine great (again) in hopes of scoring at least one Electoral College vote from the state.

And during a pandemic when strangers knocking on your door is even less welcome, local legislative candidates are relying even more heavily on mailers to build name recognition.

The result, as almost anyone with a mailbox can attest, is an ever-growing pile of glossy campaign fliers to supplement Mainers’ near-constant diet of political advertisements on TV, radio and the internet. Not surprisingly, Maine’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Collins and Gideon, her Democratic challenger, is eating up a lot of mailbox space these days.

“One of the things that is going on in Maine is both candidates have more money than they probably know what to do with,” said David Doherty, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the effectiveness of campaign mailers. “Maine is not a huge state.”

So do mailers really work, particularly when they arrive in such volume? Doherty is skeptical.

“At this stage in the game, as Election Day is approaching and people are voting, the effects seem to be pretty negligible,” Doherty said. “Mailers tend to be more effective at persuasion earlier on when someone gets mailers mixed in with their regular mail.”

A CRUCIAL NICHE

But campaign operatives and consultants say so-called “direct mail” messaging fills a crucial niche, particularly in close elections. And in 2020, Maine campaigns are scratching for every last vote in a Senate race with national implications, an unpredictable presidential contest and close legislative races.

“Direct mail gives you an opportunity to precisely target in a way that TV and radio don’t,” said David Farmer, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist and manager. “You can look at universes for your mail program that are very specific, or very broad.”

For instance, unenrolled or independent women voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District are likely getting flooded with Senate and presidential mailers because they are potential swing votes. But as a loyal or “high-performing Democrat” with a long record of participating in elections, Farmer said he is barely getting any mail because he is viewed as a reliable Democratic vote.

When political consultant Michael Leavitt first began working in the industry more than 20 years ago, it was common to blast out the same mailer to an entire neighborhood or town. Today, campaigns can cater specific mailers to individual households or even people, said Leavitt, a Maine native and co-founder of Red Maverick Media, a Pennsylvania-based firm that caters to Republican campaigns nationwide.

“In campaigns, it’s gotten increasingly more and more important to target your message and speak to people on an individual basis as much as possible,” said Leavitt. “And mail allows you to do that – to communicate to them a specific message that they want to hear.”

Campaign mailers, many of them negative, are gaining popularity as the pandemic limits door-knocking and as huge sums of money flood into Maine from out of state. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

While digital ads are obvious for younger markets, mail is still a valuable (and cost-effective) option in places like Maine, where the older population is more likely to spend time reading the mail, Leavitt said.

Mailers are even more popular in 2020 because so much voting is occurring via absentee ballot rather than in-person because of COVID-19. And in states like Maine, campaigns can find out who requested an absentee ballot, when the request was made and whether the ballot has been returned – information that can all then be used in “targeting.”

“What would be perfect to have there is a piece of (campaign) mail right next to the ballot” in the mailbox, Leavitt said.

It’s all about “layering,” in campaign speak, to reach potential voters wherever they are: on the radio while driving, on TV in the evenings, online throughout the day and at the mailbox. And even if that mailer only ends up getting eyeballed for a few seconds before being dropped in the recycling bin, that is still exposure.

“It’s that layering that has been shown to be the most effective way to deliver messages,” Farmer said.

LARGE SUMS BEING SPENT

It’s hard to say how much campaigns are spending in Maine on the untold millions of glossy mailers warning of tax hikes, Medicare cuts or socialism if so-and-so is elected. Additionally, there are now dozens of outside groups mail-bombing Mainers with messaging.

But here are a few examples.

From August 2019 to September 2020, the Gideon campaign paid $1.7 million to two direct-mail specialists in Maryland and Connecticut, according to federal filings.

The Maine Republican Party has spent more than $500,000 for direct mail in federal races – much of it targeting Gideon or supporting Collins – as well as more than $150,000 on local Maine Senate races. The vast majority of that money has been paid to Leavitt’s Red Maverick Media.

Not to be outdone, the Maine Democratic Party has reported more than $2.2 million in mail-related expenditures this year. The Maine Democratic State Committee, meanwhile, has reported just shy of $280,000 spent on direct mail in state legislative races.

“The Maine Democratic Party is committed to ensuring Mainers can make an informed decision in this crucially important election, and we continue to communicate with voters through phone calls, text messages, mail and in-person outreach,” Maine Democratic Party spokesman Seth Nelson said when asked for a comment about the organization’s widespread use of mailers this election season.

Of course, those sums pale in comparison to the massive amounts being spent on television and digital advertising.

The Gideon and Collins campaigns have reported spending more than $34 million combined on media purchases, primarily for television ad time, according to a review of federal filings. And a large chunk of the $90 million spent by outside groups on the race went into TV advertising.

DIMINISHING RETURNS

But how much mail is too much?

And is there a point of diminishing returns as Mainers are forced to sift through piles of political fliers to find the mail they actually want – such as their absentee ballot?

Doherty, the Loyola University Chicago professor who has studied direct mail in campaigns, said one of his experiments found that mailers in local races in Colorado appeared to help boost a candidate in August. But by October, it was more difficult for the message to “break through” the clutter.

“Everything is sort of washed out at this point: people are being bombarded with TV ads, people are being bombarded with mailers, … people are getting door knocks, people are getting phone calls,” Doherty said. “The share of voters who say, ‘Oooh goody, here are a dozen mailers – let me take time to go over all of them,’ is probably pretty negligible.”

Seitz, the mail carrier and local postal union president, said the volume of campaign mail is further straining a delivery system already facing staff shortages. As a result, some mail is likely getting delayed.

“I wouldn’t say we are doing it without any delays, but we are able to process them,” he said.

Many mailers are also adding to the cacophony of negativity in the U.S. Senate and presidential races as well as some state legislative contests.

“Susan Collins put our Medicare and Social Security benefits at risk while rewarding her corporate donors with massive tax cuts,” reads one mailer from the organization WOMEN VOTE!

“Sex trafficking is on the rise in Maine. But Sara Gideon voted against stricter penalties for aggravated sex trafficking,” declares another from the Senate Leadership Fund.

Last week, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders traded barbs over negative mailers and reliance on partisan “news” websites.

EFFECTIVE ADVERTISING

Meanwhile, political mailers continue to stack up in mailboxes around the state.

“Everybody complains about the amount of political advertising, but the evidence shows that political advertising is effective,” said Farmer, the Democratic consultant who has worked on everything from gubernatorial to high-profile ballot campaigns in Maine.

“This year, however, so much of traditional campaigning has been made more difficult because of COVID-19,” Farmer said. “Programs like mail are more important than ever because they allow you to deliver your message and enter people’s homes in a way that is safe.”

Leavitt with Red Maverick Media said while there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions with a voter, targeted mail is a good, cost-effective alternative this year. Asked whether he worries that voters will be turned off by the daily deluge of political mail, Leavitt replied, “That’s where creativity has to come in.”

“I would argue the important thing is creativity and being able to catch a person’s attention for a brief period of time,” he said. “People are visual, so to be able to do something in a mailbox that catches someone’s attention for 2 or 3 seconds in a race like the Senate in Maine where every vote counts …”


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