Mailing It In

When political campaigns try to win your vote, the truth often gets lost in the mail.

If you haven't voted yet, you've brought this on yourself.

The sophisticated campaigns of today know you haven't sent in your ballot. That's why they're flooding your mailbox with political fliers—and they'll continue to target you until you vote. 

Despite all the modern ways to communicate, campaigns still rely on slickly produced political mailers designed to frighten, enrage and, most of all, motivate. Oregon campaigns this fall have so far spent $310,000 on postage alone.

Most campaigns combine old-fashioned mail with data on voter behavior that allows for sophisticated targeting of the electorate.

"This Gutenberg-era technology has the greatest ability to benefit from today's technology," says Mark Wiener, a Portland political consultant who works for Democratic candidates. "It's by far the most targetable medium."

Chuck Adams, a Salem political consultant who works for conservative candidates and causes, says well-executed mailers—especially negative ones—can move polling numbers overnight. "The best hit pieces have a credible source delivering a single message,” he says. 

It helps, of course, if the mailer is accurate. Judging from the mail arriving in voters' boxes, that's not always the case. 

Nothing scares voters like mug shots of violent criminals. This year, Democrats, including Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), are being attacked in a mailer that shows the grainy photos of murderers. "Three Convicted Killers All Released Early," the mailer declares. “Legislators Voted to Weaken Law for Violent Offenders. Why?” 

The mailer refers to two 2013 bills approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that released some inmates early to cut prison costs. But, according to the state's Criminal Justice Commission, one of the two killers in the mailer didn't receive early release because of the bill. 

Democrats have attacked Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), who's trying to hold on in a district that's increasingly blue. It's also home to many highly educated tech workers worried about public education.

"Bruce Starr voted for a budget that actually underfunded our kids' schools," says one mailer attacking Starr.

But Starr actually voted against the 2009 bill in question three times, while his Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro), voted for it twice. 

Some mailers are so hyperbolic they don't even try to tell the truth. Measure 90 would create an open primary system, with the top two candidates, regardless of party, facing off in the general election. Both major parties hate the idea—but a Democratic mailer claims GOP dirty tricks would influence Oregon elections if Measure 90 passes.

“Want Rush Limbaugh to Choose Our Candidates?” reads the mailer with a photo of the conservative radio host.  “The last thing we need right now is more gamesmanship in our elections—or right-wing extremists making Democrats' primary choices for us."

Brad Martin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, which paid for the ad, says it's no exaggeration. "People like Rush Limbaugh can carry out enormous mischief under Measure 90," Martin says. "This is putting up a big 'come to Oregon' sign for people like him."

Measure 92, which would require labeling of genetically modified food, has generated the most campaign spending in Oregon history.

Pro-92 advocates sent a mailer that shows golden corn kernels next to "genetically engineered" corn that's the blue-green of a bathroom cleanser. "You have the right to know which one you're eating," the mailer reads.

But the blue of the seed corn doesn't indicate genetic modification. It's from coatings that contain pesticides. "The implication that you can see genetic modification is completely false," says Colin Cochran, a spokesman for No on 92.

Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for the Oregon Right to Know campaign, which wants labeling,  acknowledges that the seeds coloration indicates a pesticide coating and not genetic engineering. But he defends the use of the brightly colored kernels in ads because, he says, most genetically modified corn is used in conjunction with pesticides.

"The argument we're making is that genetic engineering is a way to promote agriculture that is pesticide intensive,” Kaushik says. 

Oregon Right to Know says the No on 92 campaign is lying in mailers about the cost of the measure, claiming it could run taxpayers $14 million per biennium if it passes. The claim is based on a preliminary state estimate that said operating costs could range from $573,044 to $14,698,782 per biennium. In a subsequent review, state officials said they don't know what the measure would cost. 

Campaign mailers can also tell you when a race is essentially over.

One that hit mailboxes last week came from the Humane Society Legislative Fund. On one side is the smiling face of Oregon's junior U.S. senator. On the other, a blissfully sleeping golden retriever puppy.

"Rise & Shine," reads the mailer. "Help animals by voting for Jeff Merkley!"