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Capital of Campaign Mailers

Most of the glossy ads sent around the U.S. by Democrats come from San Francisco.

July 10, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — You have the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman's Wharf and, of course, those little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars.

But there is another, lesser-known distinction that San Francisco could claim (if it cared to) -- Democratic junk mail capital of the world.

Crowded in and around this jewel box of a city are roughly half a dozen political consulting firms that account for many, if not most, of the glossy brochures, postmarked entreaties and 11th-hour hit pieces that flood mailboxes in campaigns across the country.

If your home is Kansas or New York City, you may have seen the work of Duane Baughman, who scratches out ideas at his favorite coffeehouse in San Francisco's affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood. If you live in Alaska or Florida -- or any of more than a dozen states between -- you may have gotten one of 30 million mail pieces sent during the 2004 campaign by Paul Ambrosino and his partners, whose firm sits on the second floor of a Financial District high-rise.

California, for good or ill, is the state that birthed the modern political consulting firm. Improbably, given its vast television market, California is also the place where targeted voter mail was perfected, thanks to computer technology and a rush of creativity that began in the 1970s.

Much of the innovation took place in San Francisco, and many of the top Democratic practitioners never left its liberal confines, even as political mail exploded into a nationwide business.

From work on a handful of California races, the industry today accounts for tens of millions of dollars every two-year election cycle; the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections listed more than 100 direct-mail firms in its most recent consultant scorecard. Of those, 15 or so handle the bulk of the work nationwide; among Democrats, many of the biggest players have San Francisco as their return address.

"It may be a dubious distinction," campaign consultant Eric Jaye said of the city's prominence as a political post. "But it's one that we hold."

To many, campaign mail is a nuisance on a par with panhandlers, unwanted e-mail and telephone solicitors. What may be junk to you, however, is electoral alchemy to its practitioners, a blending of psychology, political science and pop art.

Forget for a moment the candidate or issues. San Francisco's Rich Schlackman can hold forth at length on the importance of layout, paper stock, color reproduction and typefaces. "There's a reason why Neiman Marcus doesn't publish their catalog on newsprint," said Schlackman, one of the nation's leading mail consultants. "The word 'I' can mean different things, depending on if you use a thin I or a strong I typeface."

Long before television became the main form of political communication, candidates used the mail to reach potential supporters.

Thomas Jefferson penned letters in his campaigns, and Abraham Lincoln targeted opinion leaders with his missives, according to Robert Blaemire, an amateur historian and campaign consultant in Virginia.

In 1925, political scientist Harold Gosnell conducted a groundbreaking study that showed the power of direct mail in boosting turnout in a Chicago mayoral race. Less than a decade later, attack mailers were used to discredit muckraker Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid for California governor.

For most of the nation's history, efforts to woo selected voters were primitive at best. A piece of mail -- a form letter or perhaps a broadsheet designed to look like a newspaper -- might have been delivered to a certain precinct based on its voting history. But even in a 75% Republican precinct, one in four letters were wasted on Democratic households.

Also, voting records were often haphazard, so creating any sort of reliable mailing list was enormously time-consuming and, thus, not terribly cost effective. Sorting voters by occupation, marital status or ethnic surname in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco -- something that can be done today in seconds -- would take a team of campaign workers days to complete 50 years ago.

And then computers changed everything.

The use of refrigerator-size mainframes in the 1960s allowed for creation of the first quality voter lists, which enabled candidates and their strategists to target mailings based on such attributes as voting frequency, ethnicity, gender, household size and birthplace.

California was a natural proving ground, as the home of Silicon Valley. It also helped that the state kept some of the best voter records in the country and that a transient population and weak party system prevented the growth of Eastern- and Midwestern-style political machines, which stymied innovation there and kept candidates beholden to party bosses.

But the biggest incentive to improve the sophistication and reach of political mail was that proverbial mother of invention, in this case the need to work around the huge cost of television advertising.

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