Political consultants often tell Seattle City Council candidates that their paths to victory lie in sending voters pieces of mail with their faces and names on them. Some advise campaigns to spend at least 60% of their budgets on direct voter contact through mail and other forms of advertising.
Researchers show that mailers can increase a candidate’s name identification, but they show mixed results on whether the flyers persuade or turn out voters. But one thing is clear: the mailers are where campaign consultants make their money.
Several consultants told The Stranger that they turn their profits by buying mailers from a printer at one price and then charging their candidates at a higher rate. In the 2023 primary, those consultants priced their candidates’ mailers anywhere from 10% to 180% above the cost of printing. But those rates don’t shock anyone in the industry; they align with state Democratic campaign committee guidelines, and consultants say they’re not raking in billions on the mailer profits.
Still, the markups illustrate a tension between the candidates, the business model of local political consulting, and Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program (DVP), which funnels hundreds of thousands of public dollars into all these campaigns with the aim of diversifying candidates and the local donor pool.
For their part, consultants want to run a successful business, so they’re trying to make as much money as possible. Their candidates want to win their races, but it’s unclear how much mailers actually help to achieve that end. Meanwhile, voters want to support candidates who represent their values, but that “support” means sending public money to candidates who use a lot of that money to pay consultants to pay printers to make mailers that may or may not marginally “support” the candidate at all.
The limited research on direct mail makes it difficult to judge the strategy's persuasion and turnout potential, though studies seem to agree that mailers increase name recognition. But a large, more recent meta-analysis from Stanford University emphatically argued against direct mail’s persuasive power, claiming mailers have “zero” influence in general elections. Another study found mailers can increase turnout, though it is unclear if that turnout would help the candidate who sent the mailer given the form's limited ability to convince voters
Locally, survey data from progressive nonprofit Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) gives us an idea of which outreach efforts voters say they pay attention to.
Across its body of research, NPI concludes that face-to-face contact most effectively captures votes. But shaking hands with all 105,000 people in a given council district would take a prohibitive amount of time, money, and organizational prowess, especially for new candidates.
Luckily for those candidates, King County’s local voters’ pamphlet ranks as the second-most effective way to reach voters, according to NPI. Unreleased research from the nonprofit shows that more than 80% of likely voters in the King County 2022 general election said they use the voters’ pamphlet to learn about candidates and ballot measures to make a decision about how they will vote.
NPI founder Andrew Villeneuve told The Stranger that “no other source of information comes close, so it's definitely worth it for candidates to invest time and effort in creating a compelling statement that really speaks to why they're running and what their priorities are.” (Plus, the King County Elections department doesn’t fact-check statements in the pamphlet, so you can say whatever you want!)
If candidates run out of space in the pamphlet, NPI research shows that voters will reward them for going longer on their website, where space is unlimited. Forty percent of voters in the 2022 King County general election used candidate websites to help inform their vote.
Candidates also see a boost if they win an endorsement from either the Seattle Times or The Stranger. In fact, no candidate made it through the August primary election without backing from one of the papers, and some fundraising underdogs even won with a paper’s wind at their backs.
But NPI’s polling shows mailers inform fewer voters than the pamphlet and the website. Villeneuve chalks it up to the monotony of mailers. He said candidates and consults would have to make a pretty stand-out mailer to stop voters from dropping them directly into the recycling bin.
If consultants did not spend money on mailers as is standard in council campaigns, some said they would like to buy TV ads. One recent study showed that TV ads had some limited ability to persuade voters but not really any ability to turn them out, and that effect increased down-ballot during a presidential election year.
I could not find studies on local, off-year elections, but, regardless, council candidates who participate in the Democracy Voucher Program would have trouble raising enough money to purchase those spots. For instance, a TV ad for 2021 mayoral candidate Lorena González ran her campaign almost $85,000 for five weeks of airtime, not including the cost of production. The DVP limits council candidates to $90,000 in the primary, so that TV spot would be their whole budget.
So that leaves candidates with mailers to spend their money on–whether they bring over many voters or not.
How Much of a Markup Are We Talking?
According to the PDC, as of the August 1 primary 17 candidates spent a total of almost $300,000 on printed mail. Due to unresponsive printers and some poor reporting on the PDC, The Stranger could not calculate the total profit consulting firms made from mailers. However, invoices between consultants and Capitol City Press, one of the most popular printers for political ads in Seattle, give us an idea of how much consultants up-charge candidates.
To calculate the percentage difference between the cost to consultants and the cost to a candidate, The Stranger subtracted the price the printer charged the consultant from the price the consultant charged their candidate. Then we divided that value by the cost to the consultant and multiplied it by 100 to get a percent. However, in their disclosure filings some consultants combined design costs along with printing costs, which made finding the exact profit tricky in certain cases.
For example, Northwest Passage Consulting (NWP) charged District 1 city council candidate Preston Anderson a 108% difference between the cost to NWP versus the cost to Anderson. District 3 city council candidate Joy Hollingsworth paid 114% more than NWP paid the printer for one of her three sets of mailers with Capitol City Press. District 5 city council candidate Cathy Moore spent 180% more than the firm on one round of mailers that cost her $0.53 per piece when NWP only spent $0.19 for each piece.
NWP consultant Erin Schultz told The Stranger that her firm sets the per-piece price of mail before the bills come in from the printer, so they did not expect Moore’s mailer to cost $0.19. If Moore had sent more than one round of mail, Schultz said that the dramatic difference would have spread out more between the orders. Still, the price here falls within statewide standards established by Democratic party committees, which we'll discuss in a second.
The difference between the cost of the mailer to the candidate and the cost to the firm includes her team’s time and the designer's time, Schultz added. She did not provide an exact cost estimate for design, saying that depends on how long the piece takes to finish. NWP campaigns also report multiple unspecified design transactions on top of the mailer fees, but she said those charges “probably” relate to other campaign literature, social media posts, and web design.
While a $4,000 charge feels big in a campaign that at the time had not even reached the $90,000 fundraising cap for Democracy Voucher participants, Schultz and NWP aren’t exactly making it rain from local campaign work, particularly not in odd years with few active state campaigns that have more money to spend.
Another firm, Progressive Strategies NW, paid $1,135 for a round of doorbell cards for failed D1 candidate Phil Tavel. Tavel paid the firm $1,822. Subtracting the firm's self-reported design costs of $275, that’s a profit of a little more than $400 on one printing project. Overall, Tavel’s project cost fell within the industry standard.
Consulting firm Upper Left Strategies charged District 1 candidate Rob Saka markups of up to 90%. The firm up-charged District 2 City Council candidate Tanya Woo an average of 75% on her mailers, skimming almost $9,000 off the top of the cost of five batches of mail flyers for her campaign. Unlike NWP and Progressive Strategies NW, Upper Left Managing Partner Michael Charles said his candidates pay for design in separate financial disclosure entries.
Jason Bennett, partner and founder of Argo Strategies, said that the added cost to candidates pays for a consultant's expertise for targeting mail to specific voters. Sometimes consultants invoice candidates with that charge labeled as “targeting.”
Playing By the Rules
Based on the invoices Capitol City Press provided, consultant pricing falls in-line with rules set by the House Democratic Campaign Committee (HDCC) and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (SDCC). Those rules set prices in state races for consultants who want to run Democratic candidates with the support of these committees.
The rules allow consultants to charge a relatively small retainer and then make up the rest by charging extra on mailers and other services that consultants with higher retainers in other states may provide at cost. Limiting the retainer saves candidates hefty upfront costs and then lets consultants make their money toward the end of the campaign when their candidate has more money.
According to the HDCC's latest guidelines, consultants can charge their candidates $0.40 to $0.53 per mail piece in a batch of 15,000 or more. That range in prices reflects a range in mailer sizes. Consultants have full discretion for smaller orders, and most City candidates order fewer than 15,000 mailers at a time before the primary, said Schultz from NWP.
The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission does not set guidelines for the prices consultants charge for mailers, even now as taxpayers subsidize campaigns. But the same dozen or so consultants run every Seattle candidate, and they all work on state races as well, so consultants told The Stranger that they basically stick to those rules.
Candidates did not seem too miffed about the pricing. Most knew how much they were getting charged on top of printing cost, except for candidates working with NWP, which does not disclose its mailer costs. Schultz said she didn’t know why the company doesn't do that.
Three-time council candidate Phil Tavel said the firm he works with, Progressive Strategies NW, kept him well-aware of the money they make off his mail. He argued that he could not get a better deal going directly to a print shop because consultants get better rates as they are long-standing, repeat customers.
Still, Tavel said “some consultants will lie to your face about it and milk you for every penny.”
Charles from Upper Left said that even with profit from mailers, no one is buying second homes off the profits of campaign consulting gigs, particularly not while playing within the spending cap instituted by the Democracy Voucher Program. He said workers at his firm make about $25 an hour from retainer fees. Mailer fees add to that pot and help pay for overhead costs.
Consultants also make money from their more lucrative private portfolios. For example, Upper Left contracts with the Seattle Office of Economic Development, Progressive Strategies NW contracts with the Downtown Seattle Association, and NWP contracts with the Services Employees International Union.
That said, no one should really be complaining about not making enough money in consulting, according to Winpower’s Wyble. For example, Port Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa, who is married to Charles, reported their personal finances in a 2023 financial disclosure form. Charles is not broke, but he’s right. He does not own a second home.
Riall Johnson, the principal partner at Prism West (a local consulting firm that’s not running anyone in this race), argued that consultants could stand to make less money off mailers, particularly if they want to promote candidates of color, poor people, renters, or anyone who can’t call on their wealthy neighbors to fill their campaign’s coffers.
Johnson said–and his invoices prove–that he tacks on $0.10 per mailer as a rule because producing mailers is the easiest part of the job.
“Nothing wrong with easy money, I love easy money,” Johnson said. “And sometimes I wish I charged more for mailers—would have a much nicer apartment.”