Once again, autumn leaflets are blowing through San Francisco. During the election season, political campaigns fill The City’s mail boxes and recycle bins with direct mail designed to inform voters about candidates and propositions. Unfortunately, the practice also angers San Franciscans who feel direct mailers are not only annoying, they’re also environmentally wasteful.
“I am horrified ‘progressive’ San Francisco willfully creates masses of trash within just a few weeks in order to sway … whom?” Mary Rogus, a SoMa resident, asked me. “Who is actually persuaded by these mail hangers anyway? And how do the political campaigns justify creating all this inevitable trash?”
Whether leaflets, flyers, and doorknobs actually inform and influence voters is a good question; especially, in San Francisco. The City is home to social media giants, and a growing tech savvy, digitally-driven population. Many of us also care about the environment, and understand the need to reduce waste. Burying us in unwanted mail that we immediately throw in the recycle bin may pester us more than persuade us.
Clearly, those with a stake in the business of direct mail would say it has a positive effect. A survey commissioned by the United States Postal Service and the American Association of Political Consultants found that direct mail was an effective tool in the 2018 midterm election. Of those surveyed in Ohio and Florida, 72 percent said mail increased their awareness of which candidates were running, and 60 percent said it made them a more informed voter.
San Francisco campaigns, such as the “Yes on A” effort, are hoping direct mail will have the same impact here. Proposition A is the largest affordable housing bond in San Francisco history, and could help thousands find homes in The City. Rogus said that she received at least one “Yes on A” doorknob ad in her building despite a sign that says “no soliciting.” Other San Franciscans have reported receiving multiple “Yes on A” flyers in the same day.
“It’s critically important this initiative pass and that means we need to speak to as many voters as we can,” Jack Persons with “Yes on A” told me. “Direct mail is one of the most effective ways to do this — and to target our efforts to those who are most likely to vote in what could be a low turnout election.”
Persons noted that the campaign works to make its direct mail better for the environment by using recycled paper and encouraging voters to recycle the flyers. But is this the best we can hope for?
Politicians have won campaigns without direct mail. In 2010, Rick Perry beat Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson by more than 20 points to take the governor’s seat in Texas. Bill de Blasio also didn’t rely on any mailers to win the Democratic primary for New York City mayor in 2013. His campaign manager told me that direct mail isn’t always a forward-thinking strategy, and de Blasio wanted to be a forward-thinking mayor.
Other studies conducted by people without a business interest in political campaigns present a more nuanced take on direct mail. A paper by two California political scientists found that in partisan elections, where people are choosing between a Democrat and Republican candidate, the impact of persuasive contacts, such as direct mail, are close to zero. In ballot measures and primaries there may be effects though.
“I would guess the mailers do have some impact — although San Francisco is a unique context,” David Broockman, an associate professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the authors of the study, told me. “Could be a tiny impact, could be really big. No idea.”
Like all things in the United States, direct mail is a business. But before candidates and campaigns buy into it, they should think about the impact they’re having on voters like Rogus and the many other San Franciscans who find their mail annoying and wasteful. And they should also remember that even the most persuasive leaflet is unlikely to get seen if it’s buried under 100 others.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com