Campaign consultants who specialize in direct mail might not admit it, but some of them are surely thrilling at the latest U.S. Postal Service cutbacks to first-class service. For years, their challenge was getting a quick look from a voter who might also be juggling freshly arrived love letters, holiday cards, or bank statements. “I knew I wasn’t necessarily competing against my opponent,” says Richard Schlackman, who began producing mail for California Democrats in the 1980s. “I was competing against all the mail that’s coming that day. What’s going to make someone open this mail?”
The swift disappearance of most bills and handwritten envelopes from what mailers call “the postal stream” over the last decade has abruptly improved the odds. “Think about how many times you go to the mailbox and there’s nothing there but catalogs,” Peter Valcarce, a Utah consultant who works for Republicans including Scott Brown and Scott Walker, observes with unusual cheer for a man who makes his money off of mail. As our most meaningful, urgent communication continues to move online, the U.S. Postal Service has been forced to end next-day delivery on first-class mail. More than ever, the only competition a political mailer is likely to face on its inevitable path from mailbox to the trash is from other, less civic-minded junk mail.
It’s the next possible step in postal cutbacks, however—to a five-day delivery schedule—that most frightens political mailers. For years, a likely voter’s mailbox on a Saturday before an election has been among the most contested public spaces in American political life, and the disappearance of that one day from the calendar could trigger a series of subtle but important shifts in the tactics of last-minute campaign communication. “When you get close to Election Day you’re just running out of days to communicate, and that Saturday can be really critical, especially if you’re using direct mail as a tool for response,” says Anil Mammen, a mail vendor who works with Democratic candidates and causes. “This makes us even weaker when the speed of response is ever more vital.”