When you donate money to a political campaign, where do your dollars actually go?
For local candidates, the answer for the bulk of donations is almost unanimous: mailers. And for the past 20-plus years, many individuals running for office have turned to Ernie Thurston, owner of the Asheville-based Meda Corp., to get the job done.
“I believe in [mailers] and I’ve seen it be effective enough that I think it’s worth it,” Thurston says. “Especially in a primary, postcards may be a better use of your money than in a general election, where it’s worth more to put money into TV [advertisements]. Because with postcards, you can target the people who vote regularly in primaries.”
When candidates contact Thurston, he asks what they’re running for and what political affiliations they want to target. Based on their answers, he generates a list of everyone meeting that description who voted in the May primary, plus people who didn’t vote in the primary but cast ballots in at least two of the last three general elections.
“That’ll be everybody who’s got about an 80% or greater likelihood of voting,” Thurston says. Then comes design work, printing, postage and addressing. Average costs for most campaigns come to about 50 cents per postcard, Thurston says, with a minimum order of 5,000.
When former Asheville City Council candidate Rich Lee has had enough campaign funds to afford it, he’s hired Thurston. Other times, he’s created lists and sent mailers himself.
“By far, they were my biggest expenses every time, the thing you’re saving up months for,” Lee says. “Mail is going to reach more people than you’re going to be able to reach by phone or in person or online. But you’re going to pay for it.”
Citing Re:Power, a progressive training organization founded by the family of former Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, Lee says the average campaign mailer gets about three seconds of attention from a voter — enough time to register the candidate’s name, read the next largest line of text and see a picture.
“I wouldn’t say any mailer I ever sent persuaded a voter; that’s not the point. The hope is seeing it coupled with an online ad, seeing you at an event, seeing a voter guide, hearing about you from a friend, that all those combine to get you across the line,” Lee says. “But it’s all just incremental, fractions of a percent, as far as effectiveness anyway. Then again, in races that come down to a few percent, maybe that’s your margin of victory or defeat.”
Among Thurston’s clients this year is Asheville mayoral candidate Kim Roney. According to public records available via the N.C. State Board of Elections, Roney’s campaign spent $9,956.75 on April 16 for Meda Corp.’s services, which she says came to just over 74% of her campaign’s expenditures for the primary. Remaining funds went toward office supplies, food, gas and other incidental expenses.
“The biggest challenge this year has been printing on post-consumer, recycled paper, which has been difficult to source through supply shortages,” Roney says. “It’s important to me to extend an authentic invitation that shares my values and commitment.”
Though she says that “it shouldn’t be unique that [she’s] requesting recycled paper for printed materials,” Roney has made doing so a priority to help “shift the culture of campaigning” and raise awareness about its environmental impact to create change in and beyond Asheville. That commitment extends to her other campaign materials, such as signs built from repurposed materials.
City Council candidate Allison Scott used Asheville-based printer Allegra for her mailers. She set a working budget for her campaign and says the actual expenditures are “very close” to what she planned to spend.
Her $13,300 estimate included $6,500 for printed advertising and postage, $2,000 for digital advertising, $2,000 for software and subscription services, and $1,000 for campaign staff and professional services. (According to campaign finance reports, Scott’s campaign took in $15,790 though mid-July and had spent $12,265.)
“I make it clear to people that if they make a donation, I’ll spend it on my expenses,” Scott says. “The largest expense is mailings, and most people completely understand that. With political campaigns, there’s not a lot of places for that money to go. It’s either going to go into mailings or a staff member or someone I hired, like the photographer I paid for pictures.”
But even with setting a budget and sticking to it, Scott says she experiences “internal angst” about the amount of money it takes to run a successful campaign, as well as the amount of waste it almost certainly produces.
“When I’m writing a check for mailings, I wonder how many are going straight in the trash. It’s so difficult, because I don’t want to do that,” she says. “I try not to be wasteful, but it’s tough with temporary things like printed material. Unfortunately, that’s how you run a campaign and how our political system is set up to run.”
Scott speaks with everyone who donates to her campaign and says she treats them all equally, regardless of the amount they give. That approach appealed to Asheville resident Sally Sparks, who has given $160 to Scott’s campaign. Sparks says that amount felt like a meaningful sign of support.
“I know advertising and social media presence is critical for successful campaigns,” Sparks says. “I hope my contribution helps get her message out.”
Over in West Asheville, Lara Lustig gave $500 to Roney’s campaign — more than she’s ever given to any political candidate. Though she’s never before felt moved to give that much money, she happened to have “a little more than expected” and wanted to put it toward a cause that’s important to her.
“I really believe in Kim and the way she brings her full self to public office. She’s one of the only public officials who’s responded to every email I’ve sent, and that’s really meaningful to me,” Lustig says. “I really want that kind of leadership, transparency, warmth and humanness.”
Lustig doesn’t expect Roney to use her contributions for any particular thing. But based on the candidate making her signs “out of scrap wood,” Lustig has complete faith that the funds will be put to good use.
“I definitely want her to reach as many people as possible with her message and help get the word out,” Lustig says. “I also want her to feel supported by the community and let her know we’re behind her.”
The biggest donor in Asheville’s elections is Fairview-based Mack Pearsall, a businessman and founder of climate science nonprofit The Collider. He has donated $3,500, the largest contribution by an individual in a Council race yet reported this cycle, to Maggie Ullman Berthiaume’s City Council campaign. (He also gave the same amount to Esther Manheimer’s mayoral reelection campaign.)
Having long been involved with politics, Pearsall says he “know[s] what it costs to run.” Based on his work with Berthiaume, who served as Asheville’s first sustainability officer, on environmental matters, he felt confident committing $1,500 to help her start her campaign. After she earned the most votes in the May primary, Berthiaume called Pearsall, requested additional support and received $2,000 more in early June.
“I don’t give to candidates; I invest in them,” Pearsall says. “I’m not looking for anything out of them other than an exhibition of an informed, diligent, good judgment. That’s all I’m interested in, and that’s the reason I support her.”