‘It’s urgent,’ campaigns say in emails to solicit cash

September 16, 2018

It can be difficult to get politicians to open up and reveal a bit of their true selves because staying on message is the real sport of campaigning.

To find politicians at their most vulnerable, though, you just have to look in your email inbox.

This time of year, each day seems to bring a deluge of panic and self-doubt from candidates concerned that their campaigns are on the verge of collapse if they fall short of yet another fundraising deadline.

“There are less than two months until Election Day, and I’ll be honest: Things are NOT looking as good as they should,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote in one urgent appeal to donors last week. Though her campaign has dismissed polls showing the race with Republican Steve Pearce is down to just a couple of percentage points, Lujan Grisham nonetheless wrote in her fundraising appeal that the campaign is “uncomfortably close.”

Heading toward the end of expensive races, candidates like Lujan Grisham are churning out a constant stream of emails to supporters, often warning of looming make-or-break deadlines and asking for another infusion of $10, $15 — whatever the recipient can spare.

And if your email is on a candidate’s list, prepare to see a lot more of this in the coming months.

The desperate prose has become a peculiar subgenre of this era of costly campaigns and digital politicking. The messages are at once a nod to the importance of small donors, giving them an opportunity to subvert the dominance of major contributors, and a thoroughly postmodern melding of cold, hard retail marketing with civic participation.

Fundraising is the unglamorous part of campaigning, involving hours on the telephone talking with donors.

But rewind to 2004. Howard Dean is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. He’s doing this new thing called “blogging.” He’s embracing the internet in a way no major campaign ever has. And he is raising a lot of money online.

Dean showed candidates could raise small sums from lots of people all while engaging the grassroots.

Fundraising didn’t have to be a quiet process of dialing up the deep-pocketed.

It could double as outreach.

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign turned this new idea into a precise science.

An entire cottage industry has sprouted up to manage donations online. The company ActBlue, for example, has processed at least $761,000 in donations to Democratic candidates in New Mexico over the past couple of months, according to campaign finance reports. The average donation through the service in this period: $136.

In an era when fewer voters answer their phones, watch cable television or open their front doors for clipboard-toting strangers, email is one more way to reach people.

In fact, over the last decade or so, email lists have become as standard a piece of campaign equipment as buttons and bumper stickers.

But who writes this stuff?

The subject lines of emails from candidates can range from the stirring to messages that, in another context, might seem like the texts of a jilted lover.

Example: “What they’ll say about us,” an email circulated by the Damon Martinez for Congress campaign.

Then there is “You’re All I’ve Got,” a fundraising appeal from Lujan Grisham. It also seems to work. Her campaign reported receiving contributions from 16,640 individual donors since she began her bid in late 2016.

Her opponent, Republican Steve Pearce, managed to turn the good news that he has more cash on hand than Lujan Grisham into cause for concern.

“The numbers are out, and Michelle Lujan Grisham is outraising our campaign for Governor of New Mexico,” he wrote to supporters last week.

There is a sort of logic to these appeals.

“A sense of urgency is critical,” says Heather Brewer, a Democratic political consultant in Santa Fe (who does not work for the Lujan Grisham or Martinez campaigns).

Consultants say the likelihood of a recipient even opening an email is slim, but the goal of an effective fundraising email is to capture attention and motivate recipients — to make them feel like they need to act in that moment.

Otherwise, there is only a slight chance the reader will return to the message and donate later.

“It has to feel urgent at that moment because they need to make that donation right then and there. The odds of coming back are almost zero,” Brewer says.

The technology is changing, too, if data from other nonprofit organizations are any indication.

The email lists of nonprofits grew in 2017, but a larger share of emails went unopened, and in fundraising messages, a larger share of links went unclicked, according to an annual report by the marketing and research firm M+R.

In turn, campaigns are embracing text messages to reach donors more easily on their phones.

“You have to talk on all media — TV, text, social media,” says Scott Forrester, a political consultant in Albuquerque.

Brewer says a campaign’s bigger donations may come from one-on-one conversations between candidates and major supporters.

“The thing with email solicitations is you tend to get smaller donations from more people,” she says.

Still, the writing and tone comes down to a candidate’s own image or style.

Just as technology is changing, tastes might be, too. Crisis might spur action. But in politics, there is crisis everywhere all the time, it can seem.

So some campaigns are playing up personal stories and trying upbeat messages, trying to make candidates relate with voters and donors beyond the issues.

Campaigns can bust out of the 30-second television ad format and get national attention with cinematic, visceral online videos.

Forrester, for example, is managing Deb Haaland’s campaign for a seat in Congress representing much of the Albuquerque area and beyond. The campaign has won national attention, as Haaland would be the first Native American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, so the campaign’s emails include the usual fare, knocking opponents and raising particular issues.

But Haaland’s campaign also focuses often on the broader hope of electing a more diverse Congress this year.

There’s a recurring line Haaland uses in her marketing: “Congress has never heard a voice like mine.” And the campaign has sought to cast Haaland as a candidate who’s not your typical politician, with empowering rather than constantly teetering messages.

“People want an authentic voice,” Forrester says.

Update hourly