The Nostradamus review of political campaign literature

New York City Democratic Primary, September 13, 2005

Well this was a banner year for print and particularly direct mail! On the heaviest day, I received 9 pieces in the mail -- not counting a "Dear Neighbor" letter or two. With just a few exceptions, it was all in full color and on coated stock. For many years (I've been at this since the early 1970s), most of the lit we did was in black ink plus a PMS color on 60# or 70# uncoated offset paper. The change to color started a few years ago but this was the first year that I noticed full-color palm cards. Things sure have changed. 

I saved much of what arrived in the mail this year, so I have a good pile of pieces to analyze. It's not exactly scientific since my collection consists of just what was mailed to me (I'm a Manhattan Democratic Primary prime voter) and I didn't start collecting until I noticed the sheer volume of stuff coming in.


For years, the most popular format was a letter- or legal-sized sheet folded into three or four panels. That format has disappeared completely. The most popular format is now the letter card, followed by the landscape 4-pager.

Format Number received
Letter cards: 8-1/2" x 11" on card stock
2-sides, either portrait or landscape


Landscape 4-pager: 22" x 8-1/2", 
folded to 11" x 8-1/2" 4-page booklet
Portrait 4-pager: Portrait 4-pager: 17" x 11",
folded to 8-1/2" x 11", 4-page booklet
Tabloid: 2 sheets of 22" x 15", folded to an 
8-page 11" x 15" tabloid; folded again to 11" x 7-1/2" for mailing
Other 30

[Width is given before height. Dimensions are approximate.]

Phone calls

Robo-calling was totally out of hand. I got up to three calls a day from machines (others have reported even more). And if I hung up and tried to make a call, I couldn't get a dial tone until the robot message was finished. In the future, I'll keep a list of the callers so we can track who was most abusive.

On the other hand, I got a lovely call from Eva Moskowitz's father. When I told him that I already knew her, he asked me if I had any further questions I'd like him to answer. 

Best lit

Worst lit

Geez, this could be a long list because a lot of what I saw really stunk. But Eva Moskowitz's mailings were surprisingly poor for a well-funded and sophisticated candidate.

New York Times

I thought several of their endorsements were awful. At least they couldn't defeat Morgenthau.

Mario Cuomo

Within a day or so I got three pieces from Mario Cuomo. One for Melissa Mark Viverito, one for Bob Morgenthau, and one for Scott Stringer. Is Mario running for office?

Going negative

If you've seen my portfolio, you know I have nothing against negative campaigning, but this year only two candidates went negative and both lost: Stan Michels against Scott Stringer, and Leslie Crocker Snyder against Morgenthau. 

Crocker Snyder mailed at least six anti-Morgy pieces. Morgenthau's mail was all positive except for two pieces that highlighted Crocker's support for the death penalty. She responded by running from her record. Ouch! 

Mail houses

Reading the permit imprints of the mail I received, here's what I see . . .

Permit Number Candidates
Century Direct 31 Miller, Glen, Morgenthau, Ellner, Stringer, Mark Viverito, Denis
757 12 Johnson, Luciano, Ruiz
FMI 8 Moskowitz
JNG Distributing 6 Crocker Snyder
Sheinkopf 6 Gotbaum, Markewich
8002 5 Perkins
Printing Design Group 3 Michels
Lendel Group 2 Johnson
Other 5  

Cynthia Doty

I did most of Cynthia's lit. We only had enough money for a single district-wide mailing, so we made it a big one (25-1/2" x 11", folded to 8-1/2" x 11) and filled it up with every possible reason for voting for Cynthia. Even though we were out-spent and out-endorsed, we did pretty well. Inez Dickens got 28%, Yasmin Cornelius got 21%, and Cynthia got 17%. Five other candidates trailed behind.

Some final thoughts

Comments from Jerry Skurnick:

Interesting report. 

In your comments on negative campaigns, you didn't mention WFP attacks on Eva. I received 1 canned call & 3 mailings.

Regarding Cuomo, I also received a piece with him praising Margarita López.

I got 2 non-robo calls. 1 for Manzano & 1 for Weiner. Living in a district without a Council race, I was not as bothered by robo-calls as you.

I did not keep as meticulous a count as you but I think I got the following in mail:

In number order Grouped by office
Morgenthau - 8
Snyder - 6
Stringer - 6
Ellner - 5
Perkins - 4
WFP - 4
Glen - 2
Gotbaum - 2
Miller - 2
Lopez - 2
Moskowitz - 2
Markewich - 1
Siegel - 1
Miller - 2

Morgenthau -8 
Snyder - 6

Gotbaum - 2
Siegel - 1

Stringer - 6
Ellner - 5
Perkins - 4
WFP - 4
Lopez - 2
Moskowitz - 2

Glen - 2
Markewich - 1

Comments from Curtis Arluck:

This year's primaries were great for political consultants, awful for the voters. Those who were actually voting at our big polling place at 109th Street resembled survivors of the London Blitz. They were attacked in their mailboxes, on their telephones, and at the polls. A few comments:


This will be the last year where they were used so much. Voters hated them. They lost votes for their candidates, especially the obscure, rambling ones like Yasmine Cornelius's. (I live in the 9th CD.) For these and to a lesser extent the mailings, campaign consultants have a responsibility to anticipate what the recipients are going to be going through. If you know the voters are going to get 10 robocalls a day for the last three days of a campaign, don't do them. No one who's not a political junkie--and even the junkies were zoned out by the end--paid any attention to them. And if you're going to do them, make the message very short, 15 seconds or less, and preferably from the candidate. "Hi, I'm so and so, running for dogatcher in the 8th Kennel District. Out of respect for you and your time, all I'm going to say is that I'd really appreciate your vote on Tuesday. Thank you."

A distinction should be made between straightforward robocalls, such as Mario Cuomo cutting messages for the entire NY phone directory, and the deceptive "rent a celebrity" ones. Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby's voices were used uttering generic GOTV messages  but in a way that implied that they were supporting specific candidates. Especially in concert with the inherently abusive nature of any robocall, this is a matter for investigation and sanction by the election authorities.


Just like baby's names, the style that's being used seems to come in waves. Everybody's literature looked the same, especially the big glossy pieces. You're right that Scott Stringer's stood out a bit, and that Eva Moskowitz's early pieces were weak--they didn't grab you. However, her later ones were pretty good. Also liked Bill Perkins's. Brian Ellner was your typical "vanity" candidate: all we learned about was George Bush and Brian's partner. He may think that because he came in 4th, he did well. Wrong. The vast majority of straight voters will never vote for him, and a lot of gays were turned off, also. In the 9th CD, Cynthia Doty's two pieces were magnificent: they were detailed, talked about issues and locations that the voters cared about, but also gave you a sense of who she was. The only problem was that she needed two more mailings, and I guess couldn't afford them. Both should have been testimonials, one from people Cynthia had helped, one from Cynthia herself. Inez Dickens's pieces were better than Yasmin's, but she had more to work with. And finally, no mention has been made of the single worst piece of literature in all the Manhattan campaigns: Sheinkopf's atrocity for poor Eve Markewich. It came late everywhere, and the outside cover said "Eve Rachel"--no last name! Losing by only 2%, she can certainly blame her loss entirely on her consultant. Not that I minded: I supported Kris Glen, who had more experience and less of a clubhouse taint. Her literature got these points across very well, without going negative. 

Keep up the good work!

[Nos says: I think Curtis has figured out how an automated call can cut through the clutter and avoid annoying voters.]

Comments from Steve Strauss

Good technical review. One unanswered question -- how does a candidate stand out in an onslaught year like this?  Also, it's becoming harder and harder to stuff in co-op buildings.

[Nos says: Steve raises the $64,000 question. Thanks to term limits and public financing, the clutter is here to stay. We're going to have to learn how to win in a world of 8-way races. I'm not going to give away all my secrets, but here's a useful starter list:

  1. Faster response. If all seven of your opponents are pumping out the mail, you'd better be prepared to switch to another tactic -- right away.
  2. Forget the arc. We used to plan a sequence of messages (e.g., start negative, switch to issues, wind up warm and fuzzy). In a cluttered environment, nobody can keep track of your multiple messages -- you'll need to select one message. Better hope it's a good one.
  3. Selecting the right message will be key (Frank Baraff said it back in 2002) but here's the kicker: research won't help as much as you think because your opponents will be reading the same research. Thus . . .
  4. Superior creative will help you break out of the pack. But don't get cute -- nobody votes for cute. (Now's the time to reread your copy of Ogilvy on Advertising).
  5. Multimedia. You can't rise above the pack using the mails alone, you'll have to fight for visibility. Hire competent PR counsel, print T-shirts or bumper stickers, run some radio spots.

So thanks, Steve, for asking a great question!]

Comments from Ralph Andrew


I seemed to get a lot of cards (did not count) which were other than the sizes you mention—e.g., 8 x 9.5 for example.


You may think that Scott’s lit had too little text—but it was well received in this particular season—i.e., the flood and the “over the edge” deluge. Cynthia’s lit was excellent on content, but far too text-heavy to suit me. 

Get Eva

I thought — given her negative, egotistical personality and widespread reputation for same — that Eva’s slogan “Get Eva” was quite remarkable. Folks in every corner of the borough DID. When the two biggest newspaper dailies acknowledge she doesn’t play well with peers, it’s amazing that she would specifically remind so many more voters of what so many already thought! In my 35 years, I have never seen ALL the politicians in somebody's district endorse a candidate from elsewhere — as Maloney, Bing, Grannis, etc., did this year. And it went on and on.


I thought the Hoffnung campaign against Koppell in Riverdale deserved some award: perhaps "Worst results (23%) for the most money spent" or "Most bad decisions relative to the demographics." Ari thought he could swing the Orthodox to Ferrer by cross-endorsing?? What an amazing platform—a boycott against the seventh bank to locate in Riverdale—because “that’s just one too many.” 


Which brings me to the new hot charge (used against Stringer, Koppell, Miller, Lopez, even Jackson): to accuse your opponent of violating the sacred Campaign Finance Board rules. Wait until the courts finish deciding on the CFB’s idea of due process. Yell it out! Get a NYT story! Meanwhile, the CFB hasn’t finished audits from 2001. Furthermore, the CFB determined after the fact that one piece of lit handed out by the Kaufman campaign during the exempt petitioning period is no longer exempt, thus costing the campaign a 50% reduction in exempt expenditures. Outrageous. 

Strange bedfellows

The most intriguing “marriage” on literature was the Crocker-Snyder marriage with Brian Ellner. He benefited from her NYT logo on a joint piece—and she allegedly from his constituency (“Make history with Manhattan’s first openly gay Borough President”). I did NOT think her lit was good: wrong borough for that “fry ‘em” campaign. 

What's the secret of comedy?

Worst timing in decades: THREE (count ‘em 3) Perkins pieces arrived the same day. 

Going negative

Nos, you can support negative “stuff” but it best be truthful. Michels’ piece was disgusting. “Landlords and developers” did NOT pump $367,215 into the Stringer campaign and ironically, it was the former Councilman who was MIA on the West Side Stadium issue. I guess you know you’re the front runner when Lopéz takes the Michels’ negative research and reprints it under her own name. 

Surrogate's race

How is it that, when you have 23 clubs and 15 current and former elected officials (all from Manhattan), that you run a Surrogate’s race that has one lousy mailing? George Artz bragged about having the New York Times in his pocket a few months too early and then it was too late to recover. I thought the Glenn mailing piece targeted to Hispanics was brilliant. 

8th council district

The Joyce Johnson lit was excellent and yet some of her palm cards were among the worst! If you wanted more votes in East Harlem (70% Ferrer and a majority for Glenn), would YOU try and sell a West Side woman with a joint plea for Fields or Ferrer?--with Markewich or Glen (endorsed by El Diario, Martinez and Velasquez, for openers) ?


My son worked election day on 97th St. and said there were literally over 50 campaign workers on that block (over fifteen council candidates’ reps from two districts, plus all the other stuff). Too much like a gauntlet. Voters hated it. 

The New Tammany

Who will have the courage to challenge the new political bosses—the unions--other than the Daily News.? An unknown transit worker in Brooklyn was chosen merely for strategic reasons, to enhance their power??


As you might note—the more lit.—more fodder for pundits and self-anointed critics.

Comments from Alan Flacks

11-9-05: I was just looking at Brian Ellner's "family values" piece. I thought it was just awful, but a friend pointed out that Ellner did so well in Chelsea and the Village that he could be a real contender for Assembly or State Senate in 2006, or for Council in 2007.

Check out Wikipedia's excellent article on "tactical voting."


Nos's homepage | Nos's political work

Click below to email Nos: