Neither gaffes nor polls nor ads nor gloom of news stays this literature on its swift journey to its appointed place in your mailbox. We speak, of course, of political mailers, the most contagious plague of the campaign season, the electoral earworms that always manage to find their way to your front door. Their reds and blues tire the eyes, as do the relentlessly cheerful politician head shots that adorn them. They do not care if you throw them away without reading them. The mail will continue to arrive.
Most voters do not like getting political stuff in the mail. The Postal Service, on the other hand, strives to convince candidates that snail mail is still the most crucial ingredient of a successful election in this age of tweets, and that those who ignore it do so at their own peril. Anybody who is anybody is doing elections the old-fashioned way.
One problem, though. How do you convince campaigns that snail mail is the future when young people are donating millions online (as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’s overflowing campaign coffers)? The Postal Service has a few ideas to prevent future politicians from ghosting on it, some of which involve literally printing out memes and mailing them to you. The USPS and the American Association of Political Consultants recently conducted a study titled “Political Mail and Millennials,” which argues that young people love getting mail because it is so novel. In a page illustrated with an orange cat sporting a well-groomed Mario mustache, the document concludes that millennials especially love direct mail when it has pop culture references. A young person staring at an unseen piece of literature during a focus group is quoted saying, “They made references to Britney Spears, so instantly I’m going to gravitate more towards that and read more about what they’re trying to do.” So if you see political mail making Harambe jokes this fall, go ahead and blame the Postal Service.
But maybe the USPS doesn’t even need a dank meme stash if it wants to be an essential part of campaigns forever. People have been forecasting the death of political direct mail for decades, partly because it just costs campaigns so much money to buy all those stamps — but it hasn’t let go yet, thanks somewhat to the universe of consultants and direct-mail firms it keeps alive.
The National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., where you can say hello to Owney the dog, the taxidermied mascot of the Railway Mail Service, claims that the first direct-mail campaign in America took place in 1835, when the American Anti-Slavery Society tried to send out abolitionist materials across the South. The surprise missives weren’t welcome; mobs broke into post offices and set the letters on fire. It took more than a century for the tactic to scale up to the mass-mailing campaigns for elections we see today, according to National Postal Museum curator Nancy Pope. The 1964 election marked the birth of the large-scale electoral direct-mail campaign, as Republican Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, tried to get small donations from voters across the country for his presidential race. Although he lost, Goldwater raised so much money that direct mail soon became an entrenched part of the conservative movement.
A few decades later, the fortunes of the Postal Service began to dwindle rapidly, thanks to the internet and email. First-class mail started to evaporate, junk mail skyrocketed, and people began to pay their bills online. Things have recently improved, thanks in part to click-happy Amazon customers: Earlier this year, the Postal Service made a profit for the first time since 2011. Still, the agency is always on the lookout for business. And elections — which feature more and more candidates, parties, nonprofits, and super PACs with cash to burn every year — are one of those money-making opportunities.
The September issue of The Postal Bulletin, a newsletter which boasts that it has been in publication since March of 1880, notes that “Direct mail is the winner’s choice. It is the spark that can start voter action.” Who knows whether direct mail is actually useful as metaphorical tinder, but it is still being sent. The USPS says that political mail volume is up 50 percent from the last presidential election cycle, probably thanks to the crowded GOP primary and the fact that outside conservative groups had an opportunity to campaign against their least-favorite politician, Hillary Clinton. The agency is aiming to make $1 billion in revenue from political mail in 2016 — double what it made in 2012.
Direct mail has an especially outsize voice in midterms, as it is most effective at getting older voters to donate money (which is why the practice also sometimes gets the unsavory reputation of existing only to take money from old people for suspect campaigns that will probably fail while keeping consultants well paid). But millennials are now the largest living generation; when they start voting in non-presidential years, who knows how campaigns might adapt to best grab their attention?
If political mail fails to stick to the election cycle like an elderly barnacle, the Postal Service has a backup plan for making bank during elections, one that is perhaps better for democracy, if not quite so profitable. Over the past few election cycles, states have been making it easier to obtain absentee ballots, and Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have completely transitioned into voting only by mail. That means voters can cast ballots without ever leaving their house — plus more stamps, which means more money for the Postal Service.
“During the 2012 Presidential election,” USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan writes in a statement to MTV News, “the Postal Service processed and delivered more than 25 million return voter ballots and we expect this number to increase this year due to additional vote-by-mail jurisdictions.” In the 2014 midterm election, 25 percent of voters sent their ballot in through the mail, and 1.5 million ballots were mailed in during Colorado’s first all-mail voting experiment in 2014 — about 300,000 more than in 2010, according to the Colorado Secretary of State office. A report from the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General published in 2015 predicts that election mail revenue could jump $2 million every year if the Postal Service woos more states to the postmark side. The report also notes that there are benefits for elections-by-mail that go beyond profit: “The Postal Service would fulfill its legal obligation to ‘bind the nation together.’ Notably, voting by mail can increase voter turnout and enhance the election process by enabling individuals to vote even when they find it challenging to get to a polling place.” In other words, when the Postal Service is happy, America is happy.
The Postal Service, however, is going to let elections drift toward that future organically, focusing its marketing efforts on its first political love: the faces grinning up from the millions of unrequited electoral postcards sent out every cycle. The agency responded to the Inspector General’s report by noting that $1 billion is a lot more than $2 million, and thus, “our focus should be on high value items that bring profit quickly into the Postal Service.” Mail-in ballots might be fuzzy-wuzzy and patriotic, but they are far less of a moneymaker than what’s been lining your garbage can all election season.
Postal workers do care about what happens on those ballots they send out, of course. “Few workers have more at stake in national elections than do letter carriers,” National Association of Letter Carriers president Fredric Rolando said in a speech this summer, “given how Congress and the president can affect our day-to-day work lives.” A century ago, the role of Postmaster General was often given away as a treat to one of the top fundraisers of the victor. But the USPS would probably prefer if Election Day never came, suspending us in a never-ending pool of facts and accusations plastered on wood pulp until the end of time.