The Method & Madness of Those Pesky Fundraising Emails

The Method & Madness of Those Pesky Fundraising Emails

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 3, 2014

The subject lines on the emails read like they could have been sent by exes, stalkers -- or cultists awaiting the Apocalypse.

“Throw in the towel,” says one. “Kiss all hope good bye,” reads another. A third simply says, “Doomed.”

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, another evokes the enthusiasm and encouragement a fifth-grade teacher might offer an earnest student: “Awesome.”

These are not blasts from the past or rants from predictors of Armageddon, however.  They are political fundraising pitches.

To the list of “death and taxes” among life’s certainties, modern politics has given us a third entrant: unsolicited fundraising emails. And since one person’s welcome political appeal is another’s computer spam, the subject lines tend to be pithy, if not occasionally apocalyptic, and often overly familiar in tone. The goal, of course, is to grab the recipient’s attention.

“Hey,” for example, is a favorite salutation of Barack Obama’s money raisers.

That “throw in the towel” line came from a last-ditch Joe Biden pitch on behalf of Democratic candidates. (“If we can’t close this 3-to-1 spending gap,” he warned, “we’re going to be in for a rough election night this year.”)

Other Democratic fundraising appeals range from the apologetic (“We keep emailing. [Sorry!]”) to the outraged (“U-N-B-E-L-I-E-V-A-B-L-E”). A recent Republican fundraising appeal, trying not to give too much away, was terse: “Incredible” was all it said.

July 1 marked the end of the second quarter, a big mid-year fundraising period for political campaigns. The days preceding that marker meant inboxes across the country were flooded with emailed pleas for cash.

This one, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, suggested -- at least to pre-selected audience -- whom the Democrats consider their best closer:

“President Obama has emailed you,” it said. “Vice President Biden has emailed you. And now I've emailed you. We wouldn't all be asking if it wasn't so important.” That appeal included a Jos. A Bank-like promise to “triple-match” any donation.

On Monday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent an email with the subject line “All hope is lost.”

“There are only 24 hours left -- so we’ll be blunt. If we get blown out on tomorrow's midyear deadline -- the most important of the election -- we might as well give up hope until 2016,” it explained.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee emailed its Listserv with the promise that campaign donations could give the GOP the Senate majority next year. Mitch McConnell asked for donations to Republican campaigns to “stand up to President Obama’s abuse of power.” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman emailed supporters promising to match donations.

The sheer volume of emails seems to border on insanity, running the risk that it will turn off even the most ardent supporters. But there is a method to the madness.

Digital operatives on both sides of the aisle say the more emails sent, the higher the click rate and, therefore, the higher the likelihood the recipient will donate. There is also something of a cumulative effect. Supporters might be more likely to respond to the call to action -- whether it’s to give money, volunteer, make calls, etc. -- if they see a high volume of emails, underscoring the urgency of an important deadline.

In other words, Democratic and Republicans party professionals find email fundraising to be a simple and successful way not only to bring in large amounts of money in short periods of time, but also as a way to galvanize supporters to engage in the other activities that help them win elections. The difference between direct mail and email, operatives say, it the real-time feedback and transactions that campaigns can receive with the latter.

Both positive and negative subject lines can be successful. Republicans often email asking for money to strike back at Harry Reid or President Obama, and Democrats often invoke GOP leaders like John Boehner and McConnell and the millionaire Koch Brothers, who have become a top punching bag of Democratic campaigns.

The key is to keep subject lines short and personal, with quick and easy ways to transfer money, as more and more voters and donors read email now on their mobile devices.

The campaigns and committees are constantly test-driving subject lines and messages with a sampling of supporters to help maximize return and keep the larger pool engaged.

The emails from Democrats seem to be more frequent and often times more dire, with “clicky” subject lines, a practice perfected by the Obama campaign last cycle.

During the 2012 cycle, Obama raised $690 million online, and most came from fundraising emails, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that November. The subject lines were similar, with “hey” used often, as a way to express familiarity and friendliness with supporters.

The president is the largest-grossing fundraiser for Democratic candidates this cycle, and any email sent under his name increases the likelihood that the recipient will donate money and engage the campaign. Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Pelosi and others send out emails for Democrats. Big fundraisers for Republicans include Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Portman and McConnell.

The emails usually include links or highlighted sentences to grab attention. The Democratic National Committee has been using more graphics as a way to build brand loyalty.

Another trend is to personalize the message, using the person’s name in the subject line or referencing the county in which the supporter lives. Campaigns also try to entice donors with free trips or a chance to meet the candidate or a famous politician.

“The thing that works well most often is something that either is unique or interesting,” says the Democratic operative. “It might include an emoticon, hometown, or first name. Or, it’s something that makes you laugh, something clever enough to make you chuckle. Authenticity matters. … Sometimes a simple ‘hey’ is all you need to get people’s attention.”

Authenticity is also the biggest challenge. It’s not really Michelle Obama, after all, who is sending you that email. And even if it were, these missives can get lost amid so many others.

“The duality here is Internet politics makes it easer to engage than ever before, but over time it doesn’t have that engagement if it doesn’t have authenticity,” says Matt Lira, the deputy director of the NRSC. “We follow up with pictures and videos … to help meet the authenticity test so the spam war doesn’t make politics unpalatable to people.”

Fundraising emails can also garner free media for campaigns, particularly with an intriguing line or subject focus. But the challenge for email fundraising is that, unlike most television ads, “there is no traffic cop on some of these claims being made,” says Lira.

There are other pitfalls. Republicans came under fire this cycle for raising money off the formation of a select committee to investigate the 2012 killings in Benghazi.

Even with such challenges, however, email fundraising won’t be slowing down any time soon. Each deadline brings additional waves of “personalized” appeals. And campaigns continue to engage even after the deadline passes.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, for example, sent an email blast this week thanking recipients. “Because of your help, we smashed through our fundraising goal,” the email read, with a graphic showing the senator shaking hands with supporters.

The graphic had another purpose too. It served as a link -- directing the recipient to a secured contribution page to “keep it going.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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