Perspective: Political campaigns are riling for dollars (w/video)

Part of an email sent out to raise money for a candidate for running for office.
Part of an email sent out to raise money for a candidate for running for office.
Published April 4, 2014

Thirteen days before the special congressional election in Pinellas County, an email was blasted to Democrats across the country with an alarming header: "Horrible loss."

"If you've worked on a Democratic campaign — and lost — you know how horrible it is waking up in the morning after election night with nothing but regrets," the email said. "This Friday is as big as it gets."

But the "deadline" was made up, and things got bigger. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee kept firing off emails with pessimistic subject lines: "humiliating defeat," "agonizing defeat," "crippling blow," "crushing defeat" and "devastating loss."

The messages had a singular goal — to squeeze every last dollar out of donors — and they kept up to the last minute. Subject: "Humiliating loss." Body: "We know we've been flooding your inbox with emails (sorry!). Here's why: The Florida special election is today. And right now, we don't know if we're going to win."

So cough up at least $8 more.

It's all fear and loathing in the relentless chase for political money these days. In the shadows of the attention on millionaire donors, blockbuster Supreme Court decisions and super PACs, there's a fierce war for small dollars.

Emails such as those in the Pinellas race (which Democrat Alex Sink lost) have become the go-to tactic for reaching everyday people, fueling record fundraising. Waves of them are released at the end of each fundraising quarter, such as March 31, by party committees, campaigns and third-party groups.

They are incessant and hilariously overwrought, full of phony outrage and urgency, yet also sober commentaries on modern politics in which money seems to be the only thing that matters. You need mountains of cash to crush and humiliate your opponent or he will crush and humiliate you.

"We need 31,868 more donations to break the grass-roots record and completely ruin Boehner's week," read a March 28 DCCC solicitation that played off a $15 million fundraising dinner House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans held.

Forget that Boehner and the GOP are in no real danger of losing control of the House. Or that the DCCC has posted record fundraising.

"Alison Grimes is so desperate to beat Mitch McConnell that she has to abandon her fellow Kentuckians for a steak and lobster reception with Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama's top donors in Chicago tonight," read a recent email from the heated Senate race. "That's right, Alison Grimes is wining and dining with the same big money donors who financed Barack Obama! Please help us fight back against the Obama campaign machine! What do you think liberal Chicago millionaires talk about? They'll probably go on and on about their dreams for the war on coal, fantasies about abortion-on-demand, and nonstop praise for Obamacare."

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The emails usually manufacture some sort of deadline — a week before the quarter closes, five days, a day, "only hours left." A new poll shows us behind (or ahead) so contribute now. The Koch brothers are going to destroy America. The tea party is evil. Liberals want socialism.

Give more, or we're doomed.

"Writing these things is the job for frustrated fiction writers. They've gotten completely absurd," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Don't get me started," said Peter Wallace, a former Democratic state lawmaker who lives in St. Petersburg and has landed on lists from candidates in other states he'd never consider contributing to. "It's healthy for people to give at the grass-roots level, but how it's done now doesn't really encourage me to give. It's wildly excessive."

It may be excessive, but it's also effective. The Democratic National Committee declared last week that it raised $2.25 million online in March, a record monthly total, representing 85,000 individual contributions.

"Howard Dean started the whole thing. He's the person we need to blame," said Duffy, referring to the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who pioneered online-based campaigning.

Obama took it to the next level in 2008 and by 2012 had perfected the email ask. A team of about 20 writers came up with ideas and tested them on a small group of donors to see what got the most reaction. Top choices were then blasted to tens of millions of supporters.

An email sent under Obama's name with the subject "Hey," conveying informality and personality, raked in many millions. Scare tactics were also used. "I will be outspent" netted $2.6 million — on a single day.

Obama raised more than $1 billion in 2012, about half coming from online operations and a majority of that from email, according to Amelia Showalter, who was director of digital analytics for the campaign.

"It's still the most effective way to raise money," she said of email, which is virtually free. "A lot of people think it must be social media, but that's not the case yet. It may be self-selection. Someone who bothered to sign up for an email list is going to be a more dedicated supporter than someone who clicked 'follow' on Twitter."

The campaign questioned whether the emails would seem annoying. "But it doesn't impact people as much as we think it does," Showalter said. Perhaps people knew it was Obama's last campaign so they shrugged and pulled out their credit card another time.

The emails since then are testing those limits, with more fearful messages and hyperbole.

Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to invalidate individual aggregate contribution limits, Rick Weiland, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in South Dakota, sent an email that said it "may be the worst decision made by any Supreme Court since the Dred Scott case reaffirmed slavery in 1857. … Contribute today and stand up to big money who is trying to buy our government."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has built a successful small dollar donor base off emails. But the former Saturday Night Live writer concedes the absurdity of it all.

"We only have 90 days until the next quarterly deadline, and we still have to raise ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of our grassroots fundraising goal!!!!!!!" he wrote last week, after the first quarter closed.

Okay. Maybe, just this once, we can ease up on the urgency. I know you get a lot of email from us, especially in the final days leading up to a deadline like the one we had last night. And I know a lot of it can be a little intense, especially if you happen to check your email before you've had your first cup of coffee.

… But after all you've done already, you've earned a day off. So this is just a nice, calm note to say thank you for everything you've done so far, and everything you'll do between now and Election Day including reading a lot of emails about urgent deadlines. Or, as you're used to seeing it, URGENT DEADLINES!!!

Really, though: Thank you.


P.S.: Of course, I did promise to include an "extra ask" in the P.S. of every fundraising email. But since this is really more of a "thank you" email, maybe I can just go with an "extra thank you" instead? I'll check with the team at the Al Franken Center for Innovation in Fundraising Emails to see if that'll fly.