Print Shops: The Unsung Victors Of Alaska’s Elections

Elections are over, and candidates and political groups reported spending nearly $10 million on state races this year. But where did that money go? While a lot of it went to consultants and media buys, plenty was also spent at Alaska’s brick and mortar stores. Hundreds of cups of coffee were bought for voters and volunteers, thousands of dollars went to helium balloons, and a small fortune was spent on t-shirts and hats. But of all of the businesses that profited from this campaign season, Alaska’s print shops saw the biggest windfall.

For the first time in about a month, the mood at PIP Printing in Anchorage is pretty laid back. A few workers are putting together calendars in their production room, and Elton John playing on the radio. But last week, it was mayhem. Robert Graves, the store’s production manager, says the place looked like an “ant farm” with campaign material everywhere.

“It was scurrying about at all hours of the day, all days of the week,” says Graves. “And it was somewhat like maze. We were making sure that we keep enough open for everybody to exit upon an emergency, but [everything] was piled up and busy-busy.”

Campaign season is easily PIP Printing’s busiest time of year, and this October was their best month since 2008. According to reports from the Alaska Public Offices Commission, dozens of candidates used their services and they made nearly $200,000 printing campaign materials.

John Tatham owns the company, and he says they do everything from banners to custom-made potholders, like the ones printed for Sen. Mark Begich four years ago. But their biggest business actually involves printing things most people don’t want.

“We’re responsible for a lot of that stuff you have jammed in your mailbox,” says Tatham.

This year, they printed out about half a million mailers, about one for every registered voter in Alaska. And all that work takes a lot of manpower.

“The political work that comes through could easily be touched by 20 people before it goes out the other end,” says Tatham.

Back in the printing room, production manager Robert Graves tells me that campaign season is to print shops what Christmas is to other retailers. It helps their bottom line and keeps them very, very busy.

Working at a break-neck pace is actually part of their strategy. Since PIP Printing is often doing work for rival candidates, Graves says it helps if they can manage a one-day turnaround for most jobs. If you put out something attacking a candidate, usually their opponent feels pressure to respond as quickly as possible.

“We do that on Monday, and by Wednesday, we’re mailing a retort to that and by Friday, we’re mailing another retort to that,” says Graves. “So, maybe we’re manufacturing two or three jobs out of that.”

Graves says the work during election season is interesting, because you get a unique little view of how people’s campaigns are going.

“You also get an idea of who’s got the most money to spend, and how they’re spending their money,” says Graves. “Occasionally, you’ll see a piece and it’s like, man, they sure could have spent their money better than this. Or this is a really good argument – agree or disagree, but recognizing a good argument. But yes, you do get a little sense of the tight races.”

But Graves says the amount of money spent on election can also be somewhat bewildering at times. While candidates are talking about how much they’re going to help the economy, they’re creating their own separate election economy. And PIP Printing is benefitting from, even if it’s only for a few exhausting months.

“I’m glad they only do this once every once in a while, because if I had to do this all the time, I don’t know if I would survive it,” says Graves. “There’s something about the political deadlines that during that time just ramps up everything and puts a multiplication factor on it. The only thing that allows us all to get through it, is we know there’s an end to it.”

And while it’s been fun, it’s safe to say that candidates, donors, voters, and – yes – their mail boxes probably feel the same way.

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agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

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