With a 17 percent unemployment rate, a tourism slump, a $15 million budget deficit and a collapsed housing market, North Las Vegas is one of the cities hit hardest by the great recession. And in 2011, the economy was practically the lone battleground on which local elections in the city were fought. 

Early last year, City Councilman Richard Cherchio (D), once a favorite of organized labor interests in the city, found himself on the less comfortable side of the bargaining table. Cherchio was trying to avert bankruptcy for the city and was asking for concessions from the police and fire unions that once supported him wholeheartedly. 

With a municipal primary looming, the police and fire unions were rallying behind a new candidate—Wade Wagner. A local dentist with no political experience, Wagner was boosted thanks to union anger directed at Cherchio. Police and fire union members in North Las Vegas began walking door-to-door against Cherchio, and the incumbent knew he was in dire trouble.

If Wagner could manage more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, he would win the election outright. 

Given the mood, the anti-Cherchio hit pieces were coming fast and furious. They were blaming the incumbent for everything from the Las Vegas economy to a surge in crime. Wagner’s campaign and the independent expenditure groups formed to assist him were outspending the Cherchio campaign by vast sums. Wagner was even quoted making a bold prediction — he told a local newspaper he’d win outright in the primary.

Despite Wagner’s apparent momentum, a trend started to develop at scarcely attended local candidate forums — Wagner’s bravado was quickly disappearing as he fumbled simple questions about the city’s fiscal crisis. At one forum, he grossly underestimated the city’s budget and he repeatedly deferred to Cherchio to answer tough questions.  

The problem for Cherchio is that the primary wasn’t exactly dominating media coverage. It meant that Wagner’s mistakes on the stump were much tougher to exploit and voters simply weren’t gaining exposure to what the Cherchio campaign was convinced were potentially fatal mistakes on the part of Wagner. Cherchio’s camp wanted the incompetency of their opponent to be heard by the majority of voters—and they wanted to be in complete control of that message. Enter the talking mailer.

In the final days before the primary, the Cherchio campaign dropped the first piece of talking direct mail that North Las Vegas had ever seen, or heard. They dropped a mail piece that cost five times more than the standard postcard, spending the remainder of their campaign funds on a single piece. It was a bold move.

Having heard about organizations like AARP and AFSCME successfully using talking cards in recent campaigns, Cherchio’s campaign manager convinced the candidate to give it a try so that a wide swath of municipal primary voters could finally hear Wagner’s missteps in his own words. My firm — mailPOW — produced the piece. See and listen to the piece here

The outside of the card read: “Wade Wagner will raise taxes if elected to the North Las Vegas City Council. Open this card to hear it for yourself.” Once opened, a sound module began playing a 30-second audio clip of Wagner speaking at a candidate forum where he said he would raise revenues if elected, even though he didn’t have a ballpark idea of what the actual budget was for the city of North Las Vegas.

The campaign initially dropped 2,500 of the talking mailers, each measuring 9″ × 5.5″ and opening to 9″× 11″. These types of mailers used to take four to six weeks to produce. We quickly realized that wouldn’t do it for political campaigns, so we developed a process that allows us to produce the talking mailers at our California facility in as little as 72 hours. Turnaround for the Cherchio campaign was quick. 

As for cost, these were no ordinary mailers. Printing 2,500 talking mailers ran the campaign $2.49 for each. That included the printing, up to 25 seconds of sound, assembly and delivery to a mail house. The larger the quantity, the lower the price point: 5,000 cards cost $1.99 each; 50,000 would cost $1.69 each. The cards can also drop as a self-mailer, running directly through an inkjet addressing machine. Postage for the Cherchio talking card averaged $0.25 for each.