What's Good For Bernie: Should Sanders Surrender His Email List?

Senator Bernie Sanders dodged an important question on TV on Sunday. Asked by Face the Nation host John Dickerson whether he would give his email list to the Democratic National Committee, Sanders launched a tirade about “the disastrous Trump agenda,” and added: “Our job is to build the progressive movement.”

Dickerson asked the question again, and Sanders continued his remarks about Trump and the billionaire class. Thus, we never got an answer about the jewel so coveted by Democrats: The list of around 2.8 million small donors who shoveled $218 million into the Sanders campaign.  

It was clear, however, that Sanders isn’t parting with it soon, despite a steady drumbeat of pressure on him to do so.

And some experts think he’s right — not for political reasons but as an email best practice.  

“He’s treating his email addresses the way we counsel marketers to do it,” said Jacob Hansen, senior email delivery consultant for SendGrid, an email deliverability service firm, in an interview. "We advise political parties to think more like the private sector in email marketing meetings and ask themselves, 'Why are we sending this, does the recipient want it?'"

Smart marketers know that filters powered by machine learning are picking up when people don’t open emails, and designating email from those senders as spam. As Hansen sees it, even political mailers have to fight the “less is more battle,” and reach out to smaller more engaged groups.

This is important not only in the political realm, but also for the health of the entire digital ecosystem, he continued. And it’s a message that SendGrid wants to spread, he added. 

“We always use the term 'relationship' — it’s two humans talking,” Hansen said. “He got the address in a sequence of trust. Emails are meant to serve the customer, not the sender."

Judging by these comments, Sanders should not allow anyone to simply blast the list. "I think Bernie is being smart by asking questions and hesitating before turning his email list over," Hansen said. "He doesn't want to abuse his recipients' trust or the relationship he's formed and is thinking of his recipients as humans, not just email addresses."

Hansen added that Sanders could use co-registration, allowing  the DNC another route for attracting his followers. There would be a line that says: “Click this link if you want more information from the Democratic party.” This way, recipients are receiving wanted email from the sender.

"He’s protective of the relationship, so he’s already going down the right path,” Hansen concluded. “He’s treating the list as being valuable, and everyone would do well to mimic that.”

How valuable is Sanders' email list? “I can't give you a dollar figure, but I would think there would be a lot of usage on a file of Bernie Sanders supporters,” said Larry May, a nonprofit list specialist, in a Facebook message. “Email marketing is very challenging, but the entire progressive movement is really on fire these days and I'm sure many organizations and candidates will be anxious to deliver their messages to these folks.” 

Sanders is certainly under pressure to capitulate. “The Mercury News published an op-ed on April 10 complaining that the Democratic Party’s divisions are Sanders’ fault because he won’t share his email list,” Observer wrote. 

Not that the DNC is bereft of email addresses: The Clinton campaign handed over its file of 10 million supporters a couple of weeks ago. According to The Huffington Post, the Federal Election Commission valued this gift as a $3.5 million contribution, which shows you what a good political list is worth these days. But Sanders’ list may be more valuable when you factor in the fervor of his supporters. 

Now, you may think of Sanders as a left-wing nut case, or the future savior of our country, but he’d be a fool to let go of this asset. His outsize personality aside, it’s the one thing he can use as leverage over Democrats and as a way of sustaining his political support.  

There is precedent for this in the rich backroom history of political lists — but on the opposite side of the spectrum. The year was 1965. The 1964 Republican candidate Barry Goldwater had been swamped by Lyndon Johnson in the election. But sitting on file in an office at the House of Representatives were the names of 12,500 donors who had given Goldwater $50 or more. Sound familiar, Bernie? 

Nobody knew who these Goldwater conservatives were. But here were their names on a list, ripe for the taking. Direct mail genius named Richard Viguerie went down there with an assistant or two. They copied the list in longhand, probably on yellow legal pads. By the time a clerk asked them what they were doing, they had the better part of it.

Viguerie knew that list would be the making of him. He used it to build the conservative movement, and to help elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, the same year that Jimmy Carter’s list went out a back door and into general circulation, as legend has it. And of course, the list helped Viguerie grow his own business.

I read about Viguerie’s coup in his memoir years ago, and it was reinforced for me by a 2014 article in azcentral.

So Sanders should use the Viguerie model if he is serious about building a movement. The hard work is done — there’s no need to copy names in longhand. As with the Goldwater supporters, nobody knows who these people are. But Bernie does.

Meanwhile —admit it — it was fun to see an email list at the center of a national debate.


Next story loading loading..