If you’ve ever donated to a political candidate, or even asked for information on a campaign website, you might find your email inbox flooded with fundraising appeals, perhaps from candidates you’ve never heard of.
Because I cover campaigns, I get dozens of these, every day. The only fun is seeing how creative the email writers are at coming up with subject lines that will get us to open them.
Somebody recently shared this one: “Stranger than riding a cheetah to White Castle.”
This came from the actor Kal Penn, who once rode a cheetah in a movie shoot.
He was actually pitching a voter registration effort.
Week before last, I got an email from Ivanka Trump with this offer: “I’d love to meet you.”
I opened the email and learned that for a donation of just three bucks, I’d be entered in a drawing to have coffee with Ivanka at Trump Tower, travel expenses included.
How did we get here?
I checked in with Taryn Rosenkranz, a Washington-based digital consultant who’s considered a pioneer of political email fundraising. She says it started with Howard Dean’s presidential bid.
“Howard Dean sent out that first one, if you can believe it in 2004, into the political realm,” she said. “And everybody sort of raised their eyebrows and said, ‘Oh, this might be a way for us to raise more money.'”
Rosenkranz employed the technique for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee two years later, and the results inspired everybody in politics to jump into the game.
She said a lot of campaigns now generate a quarter to a third of their revenue from online appeals, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars across the country.
One effect is that more candidates can draw on a national fundraising base. People who live in congressional districts without competitive races now get email pitches from candidates who do need their help.
Aubrey Montgomery, a Philadelphia-based fundraising specialist, said that’s because campaigns share emails.
“So even if you had given to one person, one time, two years ago, your email has probably been traded a dozen or more times in the last year,” she said.
Rosenkranz said more people getting into online fundraising means that around crunch time, as an election or a fundraising deadline approaches, everyone’s emails are competing for attention.
“There’s going to be so much political email coming in that if you want to be seen, you can’t just send one email,” she said. “You have to send three in order to be somewhere close to the top of someone’s inbox.”
What’s the effect on potential donors? I asked people standing in line to get into a Michelle Obama rally if they get political fundraising emails.
“Multitudes. I get ’em from all over the country,” said Elliot Glantz of Cherry Hill. “From Cory Booker, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. It’s really overkill.”
“I get them every day,” said Diane DeVan of Philadelphia. “I read them, and then I delete them.”
Several people said that while they rarely respond to an email pitch, they understand that candidates and causes they like have to raise money. Like any marketing pitch, you can always ignore them.
But enough people seem to contribute to make them worth sending. And Rosenkranz said they’re really a good thing. In this post-Citizens United world of big money donors, she argued, it’s great to get people back in the process.
“It’s people in small-dollar donations that are making the difference in some of these races across the country, and I think that’s really a profound impact on our political process,” she said. “You know, you get to really own and invest in these campaigns, and it’s not just a few big dollar donors.”
In any case, the emails are here to stay, so I’ll keep looking for the clever subject lines.
“They’re making me send this,” wrote Illinois congressional candidate Brad Schneider. He says he’d rather share cat videos, but his campaign has bills to pay.