Political Mail In A COVID-19 World

The first political campaign I worked on took place in 1990. I’d just returned to Massachusetts after serving in the Army. Elections were taking place for state-wide offices, including the governor, attorney general and treasurer. I’d worked in the Massachusetts State House while in graduate school and had met several of the people running for office. While looking for permanent employment, I volunteered for a couple of candidates.

My duties were fairly simple – make phone calls to prospective donors and voters, hold signs outside rallies and assemble mass mailings. Those same functions still take place today, however emails and social media either supplement or replace the phone calls and mailings.

But will those tactics be effective in 2020? Will the COVID-19 pandemic significantly change campaign messaging strategies?

While television ads will continue, the prospective audience is shrinking with on-demand shows and streaming services. Social media remains omnipresent but becomes less trustworthy with each scandal. Cellular service providers have improved detecting spam, reducing the effectiveness of robocalls.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) uses the designation “political mail” for campaigns’ marketing mail. Even with the increased use of email and social media, the USPS has seen significant increases in volumes and revenue over the last three election cycles. In 2014, campaigns spent $375 million to send 1.9 billion pieces of political mail. For the 2018 mid-term elections, that increased to over $573 million on three billion pieces.

The reason? Voters find hard-copy mail, delivered to their homes by the USPS, more credible than any other form of advertising – and that includes in-person visits by candidates or campaign workers. Social media ads, phone calls and text messages aren’t considered trustworthy.

Early in this election cycle – the USPS started an aggressive push to promote the use of mail in political campaigns. With a self-described “obsessive, relentless and compulsive” training program, they created a political strategy team. In addition to analysts, key staff have been designated as strategists in each of the seven USPS areas. A special website – deliverthewin.com – was launched.

The USPS has participated in American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) and Campaigns & Elections (C&E) events with both speaking opportunities and exhibit booths. They’ve also sponsored articles, email blasts, Facebook Live interviews and webinars to promote political mail. As with online shopping, the USPS is showing candidates that physical mail is a key component of omni-channel marketing campaigns.

This sales pitch will hold even more weight during and after the pandemic. Many rallies are being cancelled and there’s uncertainty around future events. Campaigns will have greater than normal challenges to find volunteers willing to walk door-to-door. And even when they do, many doors will remain shut.

These changes don’t mean an automatic “win” for the USPS. Many printers and mail service providers are struggling during the COVID-19 crisis, and some won’t be able to weather the economic downturn. The decline in overall mail volumes has escalated during the shutdown. Planned in-person seminars and similar events have been cancelled.

Working with political consultants, webinars are being scheduled to continue to educate campaign managers. Those are being supplemented with additional online training for service providers through the National Postal Customer Council Advisory Committee. That message will need to be amplified as businesses reopen and the economy recovers.

Political mail won’t replace the volumes of mail lost due to the current crisis. However, fewer pieces mean that what’s delivered will stand out, improving the effectiveness of mail campaigns. That may help politicians see the value of the USPS. In turn, that may gain the USPS political allies for much needed legislative reform.

In 2020, there are 35 Senate races (including two special elections), 435 House of Representatives races, and gubernatorial races in 11 states. Additionally, there are thousands of races for state representatives, mayors and town selectmen. Every candidate needs to get their message out to donors and voters.

It’s up to the USPS to help them see mail as a critical component of their campaign.

About the Author: Mark Fallon is President & CEO of The Berkshire Company, an independent management consulting firm that specializes in the print-mail industry. For additional information visit www.berkshire-company.com.

Mark Fallon