Posted by: sweeneyblog | October 28, 2013

Analyzing Whatcom Mailers 2013

On a typical off year election, the Sweeney household receives 3-4 mailpieces before election day. This has been anything but a typical year. Starting two days before ballots arrived, I have received at least two piece every day. I have a stack of over thirty mailers sitting on my kitchen table (a fact about which Mrs. Sweeney has been very understanding).

To digest all this material, I’m going to pick out a few choice mailers that stood out and evaluate them on three criteria (from 1 being the worst and 10 being the best)

  • Design: Are the mailers effective at conveying the information to the reader?
  • Accuracy: How accurate are the mailers? Do they stretch, bend or obliterate the truth?
  • Gut Factor: Frankly put, how brutal are the mailers? A high number means that these potent mailers, while effective and true, hit a little too hard for the delicate sensibilities of the voters.

Enough preamble, let’s dive right in. As always, you can click on the images to see a larger version, and for the record, I did not have a hand in designing any of these.

Coal Industry flyer for SAVEWhatcom

From SAVEWhatcom, funded by Coal Industry

SAVEWhatcom, side two

SAVEWhatcom, side two

This was the first flyer I received this year, sent by SAVEWhatcom, the PAC funded by Coal money supporting the conservative candidates this year. Two things stick out for me. First, the use of really cheesy stock photos on the front left. Second, the wall of statistics on the backside – blurring together into a slushy of information. Having six candidates on a single mailer definitely diminishes the effectiveness of this ad and the text underneath all those stats is sketchy at best. “Their opponents are backed by groups that want to de-industrialize Cherry Point and make it harder for local farms to survive.” This is a rather twisted reference to the Cherry Point resolution that the Whatcom Dems passed in July supporting Lummi Nation in their efforts to prevent FUTURE industrial development at Cherry Point, and a reference to the slaughterhouse ordinance, I think. I’m not really sure where SAVEWhatcom is getting the anti-farm material. UPDATE: Ralph Schwartz challenges the poverty stats in the comments below.
Design: 4 – The weird stock photos plus tiny faces take away from the strong front text.
Accuracy: 5 – 
Most of this is the same boilerplate conservative arguments we’ve heard over the last year. Irritating but not blatantly false.
Gut Factor: 6 – With many Whatcom residents struggling to get by, the poverty stats hit hard.

Ben Elenbaas flyer

Ben Elenbaas flyer

Ben Elenbaas

Ben Elenbaas flyer side two

Now this is a well-made flyer. Ben Elenbaas has one card in his deck, he owns a farm, but he plays it well. The solid red motif explicitly connects with red barns. The flannel picture on bales of hay borders on overkill, but as usual, Elenbaas pulls it off with a sly grace. The text on the front reinforces his “aww shucks” persona and the text on the back is clear and easy to read. The only blatant lie is his third bullet point, “Responsible Stewardship of our Environment.” On the Whatcom County Planning Commission, Elenbaas repeatedly voted to gut environmental protections and railed against environmentalism on the campaign trail.

Design: 10
Accuracy: 8
Gut Factor: 4 –
While an impressive design, there is nothing to really grip the audience. It just a well-executed positive flyer.

Youth Vote flyer from Whatcom Wins

Youth Vote flyer from Whatcom Democrats

Youth Flyer side two

Youth Flyer side two

This piece was targeted toward young or new voters this year. The design is excellent for this purpose, featuring young people interacting with the candidates while clearly having fun. The front conveys an empowering message, making the voter feel how important this vote has become. The colored circles around the candidates heads almost imply a googlechat room icon and the endorsements on the side are tailored to that younger audience. With so little text, there is little to evaluate in terms of accuracy – aside from the usual campaign hyperbole (this is the most important election EVER!).

Design: 9
Accuracy: 8

Gut Factor: 6 – the laughing picture has a real positive impact on the viewer, grabbing them on an emotional level

Dan Robbins flyer

Dan Robbins flyer

Dan Robbins side two

Dan Robbins side two

While I have no proof, I suspect this mailer may have been designed by the same people who designed the Pontiac Aztek, Windows Vista and the Sixth Doctor’s costume. The heavy black makes the picture of Robbins look overexposed while the giant wall of endorsements in tiny type become completely meaningless. There are no falsehoods on this mailer simply because it does not say anything other than “these people like me!” Well, they might like you, but they will hate the layout of this mailer.

Design: 1
Accuracy: 10
Gut Factor: 1

SAVEWhatcom pretty enviros

SAVEWhatcom Greenwashing

SaveWhatcom Greenwashing

SaveWhatcom Greenwashing

This piece is brilliant in its design and implementation. If I knew nothing about these candidates and I picked up this mailer, I would think that Knutzen, Kershner, Elenbaas and Luke were flaming liberals. Look at the soft (Democratic?) blue, the pretty environmental background, the farming and fishing on the front – this looks like a piece that Washington Conservation Voters would put out about their own people. While the text showcases the candidate’s commitments to jobs, the imagery is solidly environmental – a dangerous irony considering all four of these candidates have campaigned hard and voted against against complying with the growth management act and protecting our drinking water. While there aren’t any blatant falsehoods – the whole premise of the piece is aimed at presenting a false image.

Design: 8 – I would give it a 10 but the two construction workers look like they are ready to burst into song and dance at any minute
Accuracy: 10 (3) – Ack! Technically true but built on a false premise. Hard to evaluate.
Gut Factor: 8 – The images and words speak straight to the concerns of the electorate making this a highly effective piece.

Slaughterhouse Mailer from Whatcom Democrats

Slaughterhouse Mailer from Whatcom Democrats


Slaughterhouse Mailer side two

So far, I believe that this mailer has provoked the strongest reaction this year. Dripping blood, the imagery of this mailer is instantly ghoulish – aiming straight past the brain to the stomach and heart of the viewer. This whole piece makes two very clear points, over and over again. First, that all four of the conservative candidates this year started with the Tea Party – definitely true. Knutzen, Kershner and Luke openly embraced the Tea Party during their first run for office in 2009 while Ben Elenbaas was holding fundraisers for Tea Party Republican Jason Overstreet. The second point is the damage of the slaughterhouse ordinance that was written by Luke and Elenbaas and passed by Knutzen and Kershner. All the points listed in this mailer are true – the ordinance allows blood and other waste to be sprayed on fields, removes restrictions so that slaughterhouses can be built on farmland and does not give neighbors an avenue to stop them. Does that mean these candidates favor slaughterhouses over farms? That is an opinion call.

Design: 8 – Effective, if gruesome
Accuracy: 7 – Mostly true, just a few extrapolations from the candidate’s expressed positions
Gut Factor: 10 – Ofta. This hits hard, provoking a strong visceral reaction.

Kathy Kershner votes against women

Barry Buchanan combo hit piece/promo

Barry Buchanan combo hit piece/promo side two

Barry Buchanan combo hit piece/promo side two

In case you can’t tell, this piece is targeted to female voters. It is rare that you see a combination hit piece and promotional piece. The two messages provoke some mood whiplash if done poorly. The front is well designed. The out of focus woman is almost the universal sign for domestic violence victims and having Kathy Kershner’s name bolded with the “vote against” drives home the point. In terms of accuracy, this mailer is true; Kathy Kershner did vote against the Domestic Violence Commission in 2010. After I raised a fuss on this blog about it, she tried to justify her vote by saying, “We were spending more than we were bringing in and I could not vote to continue to spend money that we did not have.” She noted that she did support the commission in 2011.

Design: 7 – The dueling positive/negative images make this piece feel a bit schizophrenic.
Accuracy: 9 – All the text is correct, it only misses the slight context that she reversed her decision after public pressure.
Gut Factor: 8 – Domestic violence is an incredibly emotionally-potent issue, especially when addressed by a female candidate.

That’s all for now – if I get any more standout pieces in the next week, I will do a follow-up post. In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments below. What are you receiving, what stood out to you?



  1. A note on the accuracy of the first flier you mention — the Save Whatcom flier with the poverty stats.

    Bellingham’s 22 percent poverty rate is inflated by a significant number of college students living off campus. While some who are in college are “truly poor,” i.e. people trying to advance their education after starting families, etc., others make little or no income but get help from family. Anyhow, take out all the off-campus college students and Bellingham’s poverty number drops to 14 percent, more in line with the other places mentioned on the flier. The U.S. Census Bureau recently did a study on college towns that revealed this poverty inflation.

    • That’s a good point! Adding that to the text.

    • I, too, was struck immediately by the 22% poverty rate in Bellingham. We immediately got on the web site that was cited on the flyer and could not find any such statistics. After looking around a bit the Census Bureau site provides income and poverty stats by state, county and city. The Bellingham number is accurate. However, it got me thinking about the student population and what that must do to this particular stat. So, I looked up Ellensberg and Pullman (two other college towns where-unlike Seattle- the student population makes up a large percentage of the city population). Their poverty rates were both around 40%. So, what does this say about the alarming stat of B’ham having 22% of its population “in poverty.” Students don’t make a lot of $$ yet. And, is there an implicit claim that these candidates are going to improve that statistic? I for one, plan to look that up in a year or two in the event any of these four job promisers gets elected. And does it strike anyone else that it is just a huge stretch for any of these candidates to be making claims about “creating” jobs?? I didn’t hear that as part of the job description of a county councilman when I went to the LWV forum.

    • Thank you, Ralph Schwartz for digging deeper into the poverty statistic being used by SaveWhatcom and conservative candidates. I appreciate that effort.

      The messaging about the supposed 22% poverty rate in Whatcom County and how the proposed coal terminal jobs can solve or help those living at poverty level, that the SaveWhatcom political PAC (which is funding and supporting the 4 conservative county council candidates and Bell and Robbins for Port) is using, is a bad argument, besides the statistic number itself possibly being incorrect.

      I read in a 2011 survey paper entitled the Whatcom Prosperity Project, a survey conducted by the Opportunity Council in Whatcom County, reports from their survey that 73% of those living at poverty level in a Whatcom County who responded to the survey are women. In my opinion, it is unlikely that women, who make up the bulk of those living in poverty according to this survey, will be the ones getting the construction jobs at the proposed coal terminal.

      Also, some of the major factors for the individuals at poverty level are housing cost issues, transportation issues, and child care.

      When I read about communities/towns that have a big project come into their area such as the proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal which will bring a high number of additional temporary construction workers to our area to work on the construction, is that the influx of those workers will cause difficulty in finding housing and will drive housing costs up a lot.

      So, it’s actually possible that this proposed coal terminal will worsen the already bad situation for those living at the poverty level because they already can barely afford their housing costs, and most of them will not be the ones hired to work those construction jobs, and the influx of the temporary construction workers will cause housing costs to rise because of the increased demand, which will ultimately likely cause bigger problems for those at poverty level.

  2. Well it seems to me that this County Council election can be summarized on one issue: Coal. If you want a coal dump at Cherry Point, vote for the four candidates funded by the coal industry. If you don’t want a coal dump at Cherry Point, you’re buying a pig in a poke because all the other “librul” candidates are too lily-livered to take a stand. And their purported legal reasons for not taking a stand are based on an abject misreading of State code which has a specific exemption for public statements during an election.* WHy should we vote for any of these flaming cowards?

    * RCW 42.36.040
    “Public discussion by candidate for public office.

    Prior to declaring as a candidate for public office or while campaigning for public office as defined by RCW 42.17A.005 no public discussion or expression of an opinion by a person subsequently elected to a public office, on any pending or proposed quasi-judicial actions, shall be a violation of the appearance of fairness doctrine.”

  3. Great assessment. I think we are in an interesting time where far right conservatives are slyly putting out an image to align themselves with democratic voters. Not with hard fact or votes, but instead with imagery, color schemes and keywords. It’s a very sneaky and I’m guessing a very effective strategy. For the uninformed voter (as you pointed out) they would think that these are liberal candidates. It’s very telling about what is going on in the conservative party right now. I’m guessing we will be seeing much more of this.

  4. Very interesting blog topic. I’ve been collating these flyers as well. I won’t categorize them point-by-point as you have done; rather, I’ll make a few sweeping generalizations:

    1) Flyers featuring stock photos (such as the deliriously happy, young, attractive, white people shown cavorting about in ecstasy over their new jobs supplied by our “conservative” candidates) are an immediate turn-off. The clear implication, namely that jobs will flow across the economic (if not the racial and social) spectrum if only these four “folks” were to be elected is belied by the fact that at least a few of these economic magicians are incumbents and yet the “job crisis” for Whatcom remained in place during their tenure in office. Picking but a few from the modern Horatio Alger “luck and pluck”/”rags to riches” line-up; How will medical professionals derive new and meaningful income (caring for new victims of industrial accidents? treating new cases of asthma, perhaps?) What upper-level management jobs will be created? How many and who will benefit? Where will the newly empowered masses receive their skills training for the forthcoming jobs bonanza? Left unanswered are particulars as to how all this will be accomplished. Of course, this being a promotional flyer, the particulars can’t be listed (if any, in fact, exist), but not a single, tangible accomplishment for this candidate slate appears. This flyer screams, “Fake!”

    2) As you’ve noted, Farmer Ben has but one card to play and he’s been playing it to the point of stupefaction. I do like his Jesse Ventura profile, though! His L.L. Bean motif has been carried through to the point of exhaustion. Something new and fresh is needed! Maybe some Patagonia sportswear-style pictures of Ben making a solo first ascent (without use of fixed protection) of his barn silo… or, appealing to the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Rob Zombie crowd, he can attack a tethered lamb or a calf with a sledge hammer on his next flyer.

    3) All our dear candidates are heavily PhotoShopped. Their teeth are too white. Why are we subject to their insipid, toothy grins at every turn? Where is the element of gravitas?

    4) The flyers on the slaughter houses and women’s rights are quite devastating. Unlike the others shown, they actually grab immediate attention and focus on a tangible, actionable and specific issue where records are clear.

    In balance, the “liberal” group showing bests their “conservative” counterparts in the flyer department at every turn. Perhaps the “jobs now” contingent should have their financial backers do a bit more homework in the advertising department. I hear Gen. Keith Alexander may be looking for work soon; perhaps he can give a needed hand here.

  5. I’m envious. While I may have more flyers than you (I currently have 34) I only received 15 by mail. The rest I scrounged from the recycle bins at the post office. Of the flyers you highlighted, the only one I don’t have is the mailer from Ben Elenbaas.

  6. Generally a good assessment. I thought the bloody Tea Party one was hilarious because it just went so over the top. I think people see that and raise their eyebrows. The Whatcom Dem one with all four and the Save Whatcom Green one were the best of the lot followed by the Ben Elenbass one.

    Well done R.

  7. Also a Kershner response to that spurious hit piece:

    • I saw that – it doesn’t really address the central issue that she voted against funding the food bank and supporting domestic violence prevention in 2010 . . . at the height of the recession. I understand that she cares about those people but her votes speak for themselves.

      • While the flyer may contain factually accurate information, the clear and false implication of listing the names of DV victims–that her single dissenting vote resulted in deaths–is a little over the top and will certainly result in some blowback. I’ll still vote against her, but I was disappointed with that tactic.

  8. I just about choked this morning when I heard Ben Ellenbaas pitching his ‘local’ schtick in a radio ad. He had the gall to decry ‘outside money’ coming in to help the other side–we all know where his side is getting their big bucks–the coal lobby! This doesn’t surprise me since he is a teapartier and they don’t think much of reality.

  9. Well, all but the first Demo one arrived after my vote was in the mail. They did get them out earlier this time, but too late to change most reliable old-fart votes. My guess is the younger later voter demographic is where they were aimed. To that point, your analysis is a good one. The waste of dollars and donations that could have gone to the food bank, Planned Parenthood, Domestic violence prevention programs remains a “shake my head” thing. PS anyone watching TV these days? Talk about a waste of money except for that which is flowing into the state to air those ads while providing (I hope) living wage jobs to the TV ad producers.

  10. […] more insight on political mailers, check out my analysis of local election flyers in 2013 and in 2011. As always, you can help support citizen journalism with a donation […]

  11. […] responded with a few mailers over Ericksen’s ethical troubles but on a much smaller scale. As the Democratic candidates for County Council proved last year, negative campaigning works and it may have depressed votes in this […]

  12. […] Mutchler. At a time when Whatcom residents are sending mailers filled with trumped up accusations, bloody imagery and more, Mutchler’s deferential approach seems to work. “I don’t think anyone […]

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