Paper Power: Why Campaign Mailers Still Thrive in the Digital Age

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This fall, freshman Congressman Michael McMahon, a Democrat, faces a strong challenge from Republican Michael Grimm, a former Marine and small business owner. Much of the fight for the 13th Congressional District, which includes all of Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, is being waged in people’s mailboxes.

One Grimm mailer shows the candidate shaking hands with Rudy Giuliani, underscoring the tough-on-crime, tough-on-terror image he wantes to present voters. McMahon’s flyers highlight his involvement in the community –- meeting with seniors, reading to children.

“Oh I get several pieces a day,” said Bob Glass, a Vietnam veteran who was passing time in the atrium of the Staten Island Mall the other day. “It’s pretty depressing.”

“I probably get the same [mailer] twice every week,” said Sara Lim. “I actually rip it up. It’s like a whole bunch of junk mail to me.”

And yet the mail keeps coming. For good reason.

“Mail moves voters,” said political consultant Scott Levenson, who’s done work for Hilary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo and David Dinkins.

Levenson says no other medium has the power to put the candidate’s image and message in voters’ hands, even if they walk the flyer straight to the recycle bin. And mail is especially useful in New York City, where a 30-second TV ad can cost millions to produce and air. By contrast, a campaign can use the same money to send repeat communications directly to the homes of moms, or veterans, or small business owners.

“It’s the best, most effective way to reach a large number of voters and know who you're reaching,” said Steven Stites, a consultant for the Grimm campaign.

Neither the Grimm campaign nor the McMahon campaign would give specific details about how they’re targeting voters in this race. It’s sensitive stuff, and campaigns want to control the message every step of the way, from the print shop to the mailbox.

Several printers who are doing campaign communications declined to speak with WNYC. One even threatened to call the police, before adding that he’d be happy to talk after Election Day.

“They don’t want anybody to see their stuff,” said Vincent Gaudioso, owner of Nesher Printing on the West Side of Manhattan. Gaudioso has printed campaign materials in the past but doesn't have any political clients at the moment.

He said when a campaign approaches him, the first question he’s often asked is whether he’s doing work for the opponent. Then, he is often asked to sign a waiver, promising to keep the print job secret.

Campaigns can be demanding in other ways too. Gaudioso says skin tone is often a problem. What looks right to the printer doesn’t always look right to the campaign, as in the case of an African American candidate a few years ago.

“They thought it was just too dark. But when they showed me the picture it looked pretty close to his picture,” Gaudioso said.

The graphic designer went back to lighten the photo, and Gaudioso did the reprint.

But political mail’s journey doesn’t end in the printing press.

Strategist Scott Levenson makes it a habit to visit postal processing centers late at night, to ensure the mail is on its way.

“And we’ve found mail bags that were hidden behind tables that if we didn’t go at four o' clock in the morning to find ‘em, they would have been two days later. Which is everything.”

In the days to come, flyers from Michael McMahon and Michael Grimm -- and many more candidates too -- will continue to arrive in voters’ mailboxes. If you are on the receiving end, know this: it’ll all be over soon. And as you walk that flyer to the recycle bin, spare a thought for the people worked really hard to get it to you.