Political candidates are facing an expensive enemy this election season: paper shortages.
Distributors and printers told Insider that the cost of paper has risen anywhere between 10% to 60%.
"I've never seen anything like this," one paper distribution executive told Insider.
With less than three weeks until November's midterm elections, political candidates are working against more than just their opponent: they're also facing off against a nasty paper shortage.
The price of paper products has risen anywhere between 10% and 60%, representatives of paper distributors and mailing companies said. The price of futures for bleached softwood kraft pulp, which is used in the papermaking process, also rose more than 35% over the last two years, according to Investing.com.
Political candidates use paper for a plethora of marketing materials, including mailers, posters, lawn signs, flyers, and, envelopes — and jurisdictions across the country also use paper for ballots.
Mike Herrera, a sales executive at J&N Enterprises, a union print shop in Houston, told Insider that many printers are having difficulties sourcing different types of paper.
Herrera said he's heard of some printers making paper quality substitutions without telling candidates.
"It's ridiculous," he said.
Mike Milligan, the CEO and president of Direct Mail Systems, a printing and mailing company used by state-level Republican committees and candidates, also confirmed to Insider there's a "huge problem acquiring paper."
Milligan said it used to take a week to get paper delivered to his print shop. Now, he said, it can take months to receive a delivery.
Milligan said that trying to procure paper from September to October of this year is particularly hectic due to the election season. Additionally, he said that the latter period of the year is prime time for nonprofits to send out the bulk of their fundraising direct mail.
He noted that the ongoing paper shortages aren't affecting any one party.
"The paper doesn't know or care who the client is. It doesn't care if it's political. It doesn't care if it's a credit card statement. This is a supply chain problem that hurts everybody," Milligan said.
What the candidates are saying
Insider reached out to the campaigns of 13 Republican and 13 Democratic candidates to see how the shortage has affected them.
The majority of campaigns did not reply or declined to comment, but Republican candidates who responded universally blamed President Joe Biden for the paper shortage.
"We've heard that a lot of campaigns on all levels and from both parties are struggling to get ahold of materials thanks to the Biden supply chain crisis," said Anna Matthews, the campaign manager for Republican Amanda Adkins' congressional campaign in Kansas. "Fortunately, our printing team warned us of the issue in the spring so we were able to order certain products, such as yard signs, in bulk early on in the cycle."
Nick Begich, a Republican candidate for the US House in Alaska, told Insider "there's been an increase in price for almost everything due to the Biden administration's destructive, inflationary policies."
Earlier this month, Biden declared that "fighting the global inflation that is affecting countries around the world and working families here at home is my top priority."
One local-level Democratic campaign in a southern state, which did not want to be identified publicly for competitive purposes, told Insider the shortage has forced their campaign to pull certain paper-based marketing due to costs.
How are campaigns affected?
Jeff Ellington, president and CEO of Runbeck Election Services, predicted the shortage will force campaigns to "be more targeted" with their advertisements.
"All these candidates now have such great data analytics teams to know which ZIP code or which precinct is going to be the swing boat area, and they'll just spend more money in time in that area than they might historically had done just blanketing the county with campaign ads," Ellington said.
Dan Hazelwood, the founder of Targeted Creative Communications and a member of the American Association of Political Consultants' board of directors, disagreed.
Instead of narrowing the base they're peppering with direct mail ads, Hazelwood said campaigns will find workarounds to best fit their marketing needs, no matter the price.
"For a political candidate, the winning or losing — which at the end of the day is what they think their advertising is about — is a life-altering event," Hazelwood said. "They're going to get it and they're just gonna pay more for it and then just suffer higher costs."
Congressional candidates, especially those in the nation's most competitive races, have continued to shell out large amounts of capital for direct mail services — particularly ones with money to burn thanks to aggressive and successful fundraising efforts. The shortage could particularly hurt local candidates who are operating on a smaller budget.
The campaign of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, for example, who's running a tight race against Republican Adam Laxalt in Nevada, has spent more than $2.4 million on direct mail and printing services this election season, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
Laxalt's campaign has spent $412,000 for the same services.
Hazelwood said the campaigns most affected by the paper shortage are the "latecomers."
"If you go Christmas shopping on December 24th," Hazelwood said, "that magic toy may not be on the shelves any longer and that's who's probably getting pinched out there."
The real reason for the shortage
Milligan told Insider there's been a 40% reduction in paper consumption during the last 10 years.
In turn, he said many of the largest paper mills converted to making boxes and containers for products instead of traditional paper products.
Additionally, Milligan said that the COVID-19 pandemic caused paper companies to reduce staffing levels, creating a backlog in production.
A paper distribution executive, who wished to remain anonymous citing competitive considerations, confirmed Milligan's explanation to Insider.
"I've been in this business, buying and selling paper for over 30 years," the executive said. "I've never seen anything like this. This is the first time in my career where there is absolutely a shortage of manufacturing capacity to meet the current needs ... and nobody that I'm aware of is planning to make the necessary investments to restart equipment that has been shut down."
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