There are just three weeks until the mid-term elections. Major fundraising is done. The phone banks are staffed. The candidates are on the campaign trail and debate prep is in high gear. Now is the time for campaigns to make their last-minute push to solidify their base and get out the vote. It’s also time for the candidates to start to think about managing the outcome by engaging with the unengaged and carefully spinning the right message to the voters that aren’t likely to fall their way.
Successfully engaging the electorate is an art form that is especially important during mid-term elections. According to Pew Research, only 40% of eligible voters typically turn out. This is in contrast to the Presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, where 63% and 59%, respectively, showed up at the polls. If getting people to the polls for the mid-term is historically a challenge, then this year is looking especially tough. Pundits will point to the President’s disapproval rating and a historically unproductive and dysfunctional Congress. They will blame voter suppression tactics, reduced voting hours, and even the weather as reasons why participation is expected to be down by as much 25% from mid-term norms.
What else might be contributing to the lack of voter enthusiasm? Maybe it is the negativity many voters associate with the campaign messages that are communicated on television, online and through email. Email activity, especially, may win the prize for inadvertently having a greater negative impact on voter attitudes and participation during this cycle.
In 2008, the Obama campaign tapped into email and Facebook as new channels to communicate their message and mobilize voters. It was a game-changing strategy that has been studied and repeated because it worked. Emails from the Obama campaign in 2008 seemed personal and encouraged participation in campaign events, fundraising and sharing the excitement of the race. It was unique and cool to be an insider. For many, these emails made the 2008 election feel more personal and fun.
So what happened? By 2010, both parties had learned the lessons of 2008 and built up their inventory of email addresses. By 2012, campaigns all over the country had learned that email was one of the most cost-effective ways to fundraise. Obama raised 75% of his 2012 campaign funds – over $700 million – through email. Campaigns at every level have become very good at using email to raise $3 at a time in what some business schools have termed a subscription model for politics.
In 2014, the floodgates are open. Unless you are not a registered voter or have avoided a party designation, you likely receive these fundraising emails on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Subject lines like “I’m Begging YOU,” “6 Years of Scandals. What’s Next?” “CRUSHING DEFEAT,” “YOU’RE LETTING US DOWN” or “Death Warrant for Millions” scream for our attention.
On the last of day of August, I counted more than 20 of these emails in my inbox between 5 pm and 11 pm. As recently as 2012, the tone of these messages were a bit more tame and constructive. I even used to open some of them. But as a voter in 2014, the persistence has gotten old and the tone feels desperate — even bordering on abusive at times. These emails seem designed to play on fear and guilt – with a little harassment thrown in for good measure.
Jon Stewart may paint these emails as comical, but as someone who has a healthy interest in the success of the political process, I’ve become disappointed by the exclusive focus on money and how rarely email is being used this time around to share ideas that will benefit voters. The uplift that we experienced in 2008 from being invited to engage in a virtual conversation with the candidate or the campaign has now unfortunately become part of the not-so-distant past.
Email has two advantages over the other communication channels available to candidates: reach and cost-benefit. Eighty-five percent of all voters have one of more email addresses. Compare that with television, which on a good day gets a 20% viewer share. Without cost or effort as barriers to slow them down, it is a simple matter for a campaign to drop three, ten or even twenty pleas for money into your inbox every day.
Today, email — and certain types of online display targeting — provide campaigns with unprecedented access to voters. Because of technology, many of these voters could be connected to conversations about the issues and encouraged to interact with campaigns and candidates on ideas that create solutions. Ideas trump desperation and I’m betting that someday soon voters will want to hear more from those candidates who share their thoughts and have something constructive to add to the conversation. At some point, campaigns may come to realize that no amount of desperation, no matter how ardently expressed in a subject line, is going to get voters to open that email.
In 2016 and beyond, campaigns need to get creative again. Control the urge to abuse the access they have to voters through email and online and embrace their better marketing instincts. Request opinions, tap into communities where you’ve never stumped, share and engage users with ideas and point to results. Campaigns need to leverage email and online display to create reasons and opportunities for we-the-people to want to engage and vote again.