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This cycle will be remembered as the year that email fundraising got weird.
Senators “begged” and “pleaded” for money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) sent multiple, manic emails a day telling us that all hope was lost, and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) introduced us to the character of “Polling Bear.” The resulting Internet attention generated Twitter accounts and Tumblr blogs.
Meanwhile, grassroots donors gave more often and in larger numbers than ever before. By Election Day, ActBlue had processed a fundraising-cycle record: 6,925,384 contributions under $250 from 1,396,074 unique donors.
Now that the election is over we need to have a conversation about email. But really, we need to have a conversation about campaigns in a post-Citizens United world.
The increase in independent expenditure (IE) donations and spending over the past three cycles is staggering. Shortly before Election Day, USA Today reported that super PACs have raised $615 million this cycle—a full $200 million of that from just 42 individual donors.
What does this have to do with the fundraising emails flooding our inboxes? Campaigns and party committees are now forced to compete with super PACS for relevance. Digital directors and consultants are being asked to raise more money using fewer resources. When you read an email about grassroots donors being the front line defense against super PAC’s it isn’t hyperbole, but the reality of the situation.
Emails read like desperate pleas because they’re in fact just that. Grassroots donors are smart enough to know the truth when they see it. Still, the begging and pleading works because the fundraising emails are the closest thing anyone has to a solution. Activists like being asked to help solve a problem. Donating to a candidate or party committee is the best most campaigns and committees are offering them.
I hate a lot of what I’m seeing in my inbox right now, but I hate the current state play so much more. We have a record number of activists who want to participate in our Democracy, but we’ve turned them into cannon fodder in an unwinnable war against big money.
And the pressure to raise so much money is killing innovation in digital generally. Digital strategy should be integrated into all aspects of a campaign: field, fundraising, communications and paid media. But in the current climate the primary goal that digital strategists are asked to devote time and attention to is fundraising. As a result, all other campaign operations aren’t being tested and optimized with the same vigor.
I do this work because I love using technology to connect people with the political process. I love raising money online but I also love using digital to mobilize volunteers and drive media narrative—parts of digital work that have been given the short shrift in favor of more fundraising emails.
Am I worried we’re killing email as a fundraising source? Sure, but my greatest fear is that in a couple of cycles fundraising email won’t matter at all, because 42 billionaires will simply buy our elections outright, and no amount of frantic fundraising emails will be able to save us.
Melissa Ryan is a senior strategist at the digital firm Trilogy Interactive.