Digital Strategy in a Recount: The Secret Ingredient Your Campaign Needs
April 2021 | by Anthony Pileggi
IMGE Studies Marketing
Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker are widely considered three of the top contenders for Democrats in the 2020 presidential election. I was curious to see if their emails could tell us anything about a likely presidential run, so I signed up for their campaign lists and watched as the emails flooded in.
Across the board there was a consistent push against Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, donation asks for vulnerable colleagues like Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, and Bill Nelson, and all three use ActBlue fundraising software. However, their sending practices and copy varied dramatically.
With Booker and Harris up for reelection in 2020 and 2022, respectively, Warren is the only one of the three who is facing an active threat to her seat. This is why it came as no surprise that I received the most correspondence from Warren, a whopping 30 emails in 3.5 weeks.
In her welcome email, Warren introduces herself, what she will be fighting for, and asks users to take three actions: register to vote, take her issues survey, and donate to the campaign. From the get-go Warren strikes a tone that she means business, and this defensive and passionate tone is consistent throughout all of the emails with subject lines such as “This one hurts,” “Channel your anger,” “A charade,” and “Time’s up.”
“Big banks, giant corporations, and their armies of lawyers and lobbyists have held our country hostage for decades. There are plenty of people looking out for the big guys in Washington, but we’re not one of them.”
Warren offers a one-two punch in emails supporting Democrat colleagues: take a jab at President Trump, and explain how a donation to their campaign is resisting Trump. For example, in her email in support of Bill Nelson, Warren lays out how Nelson is a key to winning back the Senate and stopping Trump from confirming more judges.
“Here’s what I’ve been reminding myself this week: Don’t just get mad. Get Even. Fight Back. We won’t stop fighting back. At the same time, we’ve got to lay the groundwork for the fights to come – fighting to slam the breaks on Donald Trump’s assembly line of far-right nominees. That means it’s more important than ever for Democrats to take back the Senate. But we can’t get it done if my friend Florida Senator Bill Nelson loses his neck-and-neck re-election race.”
This tactic of attacking Trump while rallying support for a colleague is consistent in the other emails for Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly. Although Harris and Booker also use anti-Trump rhetoric to rally support, Warren outpaces the two by far in sheer volume of messages and mentions of Trump’s name. Take a look:
One area that Warren dabbles in that Harris and Booker do not is merchandise. She promotes the Elizabeth for MA store items in one email and gives away “Persist” laptop stickers in another. Warren is on to something here with merchandise promotion. David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama’s campaign, described the relationship between merch and building a grassroots volunteer army as, “giving away lawn signs for free is demobilizing because once volunteers set them on their lawns, they think they’ve done their part for the campaign. Buying chum, on the other hand, makes people feel more invested in the campaign, which leads to more volunteerism.”
I am about as establishment conservative as they come, yet I found myself inspired to take action after reading her emails. If you’ve ever listened to Elizabeth Warren talk, you can perfectly visualize her saying the copy in every email. This is where Warren really differs from Harris and Booker; her brand is consistent and true to what she has run on in the past, the subject lines were short and punchy, the copy was engaging, and the message was clear in every email: Fight back.
I didn’t have as much to analyze on Harris as I did with Warren. In the span of 3.5 weeks I received only ten emails, a majority of which were asks to donate to her campaign or another Democrat’s campaign.
Harris sets the stage for her campaign in the welcome email with an attack against the President paired with an inspirational vision for the future.
“The Trump Administration is launching almost daily assaults on the foundations of our democracy and government, which is why we must take seriously our job of defending the voiceless and vulnerable in our society. Imagine for a moment that every single person is guaranteed health care and that no family has to choose between life-saving medicine and putting food on the table. Imagine a country where immigrants and refugees and their families are welcomed and allowed to contribute — not attacked by politicians to score cheap political points.”
Harris had the highest percentage of emails that were direct asks for money, with eight out of ten emails including a CTA for a donation to her campaign or a fellow democrats campaign. With the exception of her second email, Harris does not send surveys and only sent one petition (on blocking Kavanaugh to Supreme Court). My guess is that her team chose this tactic to build her list by co-sending donation emails to any Democrat that asks. Harris is making friends and building her list for 2020.
Aside from a lot of co-donation asks, there were a few things about Harris’ email operation that stuck out to me. First, some of subject lines were crazy long:
“I am personally asking you to make a donation of $10 or more to Claire McCaskill’s reelection campaign. Virtually all the public polls show her race TIED and now Trump is coming to Missouri to attack her later today. Can you stand with Claire by making a quick donation here? (please read)”
That subject line was a jaw-dropping length of 289 characters. To put that into perspective, email best practices call for 50 characters or less, or no more than five words.
Second, the preview text for every email was the link to a donation page. I don’t know if they thought someone would be able to click the link from their inbox or what, but it certainly is not visually appealing in my inbox and certainly doesn’t make me want to open the email.
Lastly, every email ends with the same Dolores Huerta quote. Seeing this quote in every email provides no value to the user and the chances that a majority of users on her list understand who Huerta is and her relevance to Harris’ campaign is slim.
For someone with as much celebrity political capital as Senator Harris, I am surprised she isn’t engaging her email list more with current events, petitions, reminders to register to vote, or merchandise. All in all, Harris’ email operation is surely making progress building a fat email list for the future, but there’s a lot of work to do with brand building and user engagement in preparation for 2020.
There’s one word that comes to mind when I think about Cory Booker’s emails: underwhelming. In contrast to Warren and Harris’ first emails, Booker includes no mention of President Trump or opponents. Rather, he keeps it short and positive with asking to work together, and requests supporters to fill out a supporter survey to share thoughts about the progressive agenda.
“We have a lot of hard work ahead to preserve the progress we’ve made and to stand up for the values we hold. As we continue our work together, I want to hear directly from you about what you want to see happen in the coming months and years.”
I was surprised to see that whoever is running his welcome series hasn’t updated their survey since 2017; it still says “What issues should progressives remain outspoken on in 2017?”
Unlike Warren and Harris, Booker spends some time pressing a celebrity image, seemingly trying to emulate Barack Obama circa 2007 with emails about feature stories in magazines like the New York Magazine and email subjects like “Democracy is my passion” and “I need you with me.”
Sorry Spartacus, I’m not buying it. I didn’t feel the pressure of the world on me like I did when I was reading Warren’s calls to action. There isn’t a sense of urgency to take action or participate in the grassroots movement he is trying to build. For someone who is already making campaign stops in Iowa, his email series doesn’t reflect a serious digital operation that is building a grassroots army for 2020.
When it comes to email communications, Senator Elizabeth Warren is positioning herself for a 2020 bid better than Senators Harris and Booker.
Her anti-Trump and rally all Democrat women rhetoric is consistent throughout all emails. From survey imagery to email formatting and donation buttons to messaging tone, Warren appears to have taken the most time to thoughtfully craft a consistent brand and messaging that I didn’t see with Booker or Harris. She took advantage of hot topic events such as the Kavanaugh hearing with various calls to action, whereas Booker and Harris did not. Warren doesn’t hide who she is or what platform she is running on; she is consistently vocal about her direct opposition to President Trump, her aspirations for a very progressive Democrat party agenda, and her desire for more liberal members of Congress.
We will find out soon enough if these Democrat Senators are launching a presidential campaign for 2020, but Senator Elizabeth Warren is not wasting any time building her email operation.
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