Decoding the political mail we endure in a purple part of Kansas
An array of political flyers make their case at columnist Eric Thomas’ home. (Eric Thomas)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.
Our house receives basically three types of mail these days. First, because my daughter is on the brink of applying to college, we get daily mail from one Midwestern university or another. Second, we get catalogs, mounds of glossy paper waste that thunder when they hit the bottom of our recycling bin.
And third, we receive political mail, competing for our attention and begging for our votes.
The mosh pit in our mailbox between Democrats and Republicans makes strategic sense, given where we live. Our Johnson County neighborhood is one of the purplest areas of Kansas.
According to the New York Times map of the 2020 presidential election, our neighborhood voted for Trump by 6.1 percentage points. However, if you drive west, the next neighborhood voted for Biden by 30%. The same is true for north (Biden by 20%), south (Biden by 12%) and east (Biden by 9.6%). The campaigns rightly see our cul-de-sacs as contested.
Explaining the mail that we receive simply based on where we live ignores how sophisticated political campaigns and advocacy groups are. Sure, we likely get some of the mail because of where we live. However, our family’s voting history and consumer choices likely help target our household even more precisely.
After taking on the abortion amendment yard signs in August, here’s my analysis of some of the mail we’ve been getting. I’ll blend graphic design insights with some political observations.
Of course, I can only comment on the mail that I received, so some contested races aren’t included. My apologies (and thanks) to whatever candidate included a dog treat with their mailer — my JOCO goldendoodle shredded that one to gobble the treat (bad dog!).
Kansas US House District 3: Sharice Davids (D) vs. Amanda Adkins (R)
One of the widespread themes of the political mail we have received: images of women. Of course, in this congressional race, both candidates are women, and their faces dominate the designs.
However, a mailer from House Majority PAC calling Adkins “wrong for Kansas” finds a subtle way to reinforce the importance of the election for women. The handcuffed wrists — layered in the background and faded in opacity — appear to be a woman’s. The manicured nails drape down from the handcuffs. Meanwhile, the red text at the right (yes … as in, the conservative red and conservative right) describes Adkins’ positions on abortion.
A text box at the bottom right punctuates the design, saying, “VOTE NO ON AMANDA ADKINS.” The repetition of the “vote no” mantra from the statewide August abortion amendment referendum further ties Adkins to her position.
The confusing graphic design choice here is on the reverse side of the same mailer: an image of Adkins sits inside a handcuff. It spells out “100,” emphasizing the Adkins quote: “A hundred percent, I am a pro-life candidate.”
Why put Adkins inside the handcuffs based on her political position? To many liberal or centrist voters, that visual looks cruel. The image elicits more sympathy for Adkins than fear of her.
The most playful and trolling mailer that we received came from the Kansas Republican Party. David Plotz, former editor at Slate, loves the political truism that whatever party is having the most fun is most likely to win. This fake letter from President Joe Biden to U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids revels in silly wordplay and goofy sarcasm while stapling the two Democrats to one another.
“NO, this is not a real letter from President Biden. But YES, Sharice Davids really has voted with Biden 100% of the time,” the bottom of the flyer reads.
The letter, complete with a Biden signature, bullet points dismal economic indicators. One of those bullet points is deceptive, blaming Biden for driving “the country into a recession.”
Following the footnote by that bullet point takes you to an article on the “Motley Fool” financial blog about the late summer economic predictions of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Yet neither that article nor any of the others about Dimond’s predictions support the claim that the U.S. is currently in a recession. As any attentive Econ 101 student knows, a recession has a precise definition — and the U.S. economy is not in a recession, regardless of whether a CEO thinks it’s likely.
Kansas Governor: Laura Kelly (D) vs. Derek Schmidt (R)
In sorting my family’s political mail, I was surprised to see that all of our mail for the Kansas governor’s race came from one side. Our mailbox hasn’t received one piece of mail supporting Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection bid or, for that matter, any mail from Schmidt’s campaign.
In fact, all of the mail for the governor’s race came from Americans For Prosperity, an advocacy group launched by the conservative Koch family from Wichita. (All of them were addressed to my wife, which suggests that an algorithm in the advocacy group’s system recognized her — and not me — as a worthwhile recipient.)
“Kansas needs leaders that empower everyday people. Not special interests or Topeka bureaucrats,” the mailer reads. The hypocrisy is pretty blatant with rhetoric like that appearing on a mailer funded by an advocacy group bankrolled by some of the wealthiest Kansans.
The mailer from Americans for Prosperity checks so many boxes on the bingo card of political design cliches. In our mailboxes, how many forlorn people have we seen, staring at their bills at the kitchen counter with their foreheads in their hands? How many quotes have we seen overlaying a torn piece of paper? How many pieces of scrapbook-style masking tape appear affixed to the paper?
While the design is cliche, it also is effective. Using the trusty torn piece of paper, the design literally links the man at the left who is being crushed by bills and Kelly on the right, who stares forward with her lips pursed.
Kansas House of Representatives, District 28: Ace Allen (D) vs. Carl Turner (R)
Another common design technique in the mailers we received? Pumping up a candidate on one side of the mailer while tearing down their opposition on the reverse side. A mailing supporting Republican Carl Turner is the most striking in its contrast from one side of the paper to the other.
In a photo of a backyard suburban scene, Turner, looking a bit more wooden than his newfound friend, shakes hands with the man. The white background provides a bright and comfortable place to read about Turner’s work with “both parties.” The design welcomes the audience.
Flip it over. There you find his opponent Ace Allen, surrounded by a black background and gray paint drips. Neon yellow words, labeling him as “Liberal,” are written in essentially the same font used by 1980s hair metal band Skid Row. Allen’s likeness suffers the Photoshop punishment of being stripped of saturation and crackled with graininess.
The mailing that struck my eye, which supports Allen, doesn’t contrast the two candidates in the same way. The Kansans United for Civil Liberties addressed the mail to both my wife and me. This ad presents a chart of each candidate and their stances on reproductive rights. The color scheme commits to a fundamental hue, purple, as a moderate midpoint between red and blue.
On the reverse side, the images of three women dominate our attention while claiming that “the Kansas legislature is just three votes away from restricting the right to an abortion.” Again, visuals likely to connect with female voters dominate this mailing and others supporting Democratic candidates.
With such a wide array of design, political and rhetorical decisions, can a majority of mailers agree on a vital fact that voters need to know?
Yes, most ads want you to know that the election is Nov. 8.
On that day, our mailbox will be relieved.
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