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.

The card dropped shortly before the primary in the midst of early voting and we saw plenty of evidence that it gave Cherchio the needed bump to ensure he’d move on to a general election. Of 2,956 votes cast, Cherchio received 1,312 (44.38 percent) to Wagner’s 1,384 (46.82 percent). A token third-party candidate took home 260 votes (8.8 percent). 

Crunching the numbers, the Cherchio camp lost the early vote by 69, but lost the Election Day vote by just three. In several precincts where Cherchio lost the early vote, he turned it around on Election Day after the talking mailer hit. Hearing Wagner’s blunder in his own words was powerful enough to shift the momentum. And Wagner’s barrage of negative mail was countered effectively in the final days by one novel piece of mail from Cherchio.

The earned media the mailer generated was an added bonus. Local newspapers and blogs covered the mailer heavily, and it eventually went national when NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted a link to a video of the talking mailer.

Typically, direct mail generates a headline only when it contains a harsh or over-the-top negative, which isn’t the type of attention that most campaigns want. But the novelty of the talking mailer format generates free media in and of itself, amplifying a campaign’s message or objective. California congressional candidate Jim Reed sent talking mailers to potential donors last cycle complete with sound of a Keith Olbermann rant against Reed’s opponent and a pitch from Reed to donate through his ActBlue site. The innovative pitch got the card featured on the liberal blog DailyKos, in the local press and on YouTube.

Another possibility: quick, but memorable sound effects. We’ve used them in talking mailers to add an emotional edge to the content, and most are shorter than five seconds. From a witch’s cackle — used on a mailer hitting Tea Party-backed Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell in 2010 — to a police siren, and even the infamous “wah-wah” sound played for losers on “The Price is Right,” these short burst talking cards have garnered significant earned media for campaigns.

In Cherchio’s case, the sound and message was more straightforward, but with the local fire and police unions actively working against him, getting the incumbent past the primary and to a general election was no small feat. In the general, Cherchio deployed two more talking mailers against Wagner. After the general, the incumbent ended up trailing Wagner by a single vote—an outcome that’s still being contested in court some six months later. Because of a poll worker mistake, a voter was allowed to cast a ballot in the wrong ward and recently, that voter provided a sworn statement that he cast his ballot for Wagner.

Barraging high-propensity voters with oversized direct mail pieces is a commonplace strategy. A typical campaign may drop as many as four to eight GOTV pieces in rapid succession. 

Once used only by high-profile campaigns and initiatives, the affordability of full color postcards now makes this a viable strategy for most local races, too. The cumulative effect on the voter is staggering — up to a half-dozen oversized postcards grace their mailbox each day, weeks prior to the election. There’s a new premium on making political mail stand out.

We took a lesson from the company that’s mastered the art of making an impression through the mail — Hallmark. A dozen years ago, the company introduced its first card with sound. Retailing for somewhere between $5.99 and $8.99, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t purchased or received a singing birthday card at some point.

For campaigns, sound through the mail is like blending a great radio spot with a mail piece; or a robocall with a brochure. In part because of the novelty and in part thanks to the multi-sensory effect, we think the overall impact of a talking mailer becomes exponentially more than the sum of its parts.

During the 2010 cycle, we did a talking card for a gubernatorial candidate, and then followed up with 200 of the recipients two weeks after the mailer hit. We found that a good portion of those polled still had the card in their house and that almost all had shared the card with members of their household, taken it to local club meetings or showed it to friends. Voters remembered the piece and they were able to tell us something about the content.

From advocacy efforts to GOTV and fundraising, campaigns large and small have deployed talking mailers in an attempt to cut through the noise generated by today’s campaign landscape. On Capitol Hill, AARP used a talking mailer to lobby the Senate on financial reform. The San Francisco Association of Realtors recently used them as slate mailers, which spoke in both Chinese and Spanish.

When you’re plotting out your mail program for 2012, keep this in mind: The preponderance of Super PACs and outside expenditure groups fighting for every last second of television airtime this year is sure to clog the environment even more. The premium will be on message vehicles with the potential to cut through the clutter.  

Crystal Martin is a California-based political consultant and CEO of mailPOW. In 2011, Martin was named Rookie of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants.