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Even After Electoral Defeat, Campaign Email Lists Don’t Die

Email lists still have value after the election — for candidates and others

Emily Cain, who lost a bid for Maine’s 2nd District last month, keeps in touch with her supporters by letting them know about causes that are important to her. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Emily Cain, who lost a bid for Maine’s 2nd District last month, keeps in touch with her supporters by letting them know about causes that are important to her. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The pace of campaign correspondence slows considerably after Election Day, with candidate fundraising emails making way for holiday salutations. 

But it doesn’t stop completely.

Candidates — even failed ones — hold onto those email lists and use them to advance future endeavors, whether it’s their next political venture or someone else’s, or simply a cause they’re passionate about. 

“There’s a reason the FEC considers these kinds of lists to have value,” said Democrat Emily Cain, who lost a rematch against Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin last month. 

Cain recently emailed her list, soliciting donations to the Council for a Livable World, a nonprofit advocacy organization that fights to reduce nuclear weapons. The group, which bundles money to congressional campaigns, endorsed her this year. Its backing was particularly helpful, Cain said, when she came under attack for supporting the Iran deal. 

The group asked Cain if she’d send an email after the election, and she agreed. In her email, she identified the organization as one that she trusts on national security issues, suggesting the nonprofit is even more important now after the election.

“Their endorsement helped me fight vicious false attacks during my campaign, and I look forward to finding future opportunities to work together to raise awareness about the importance of keeping our world livable, especially by preventing the use and spread of nuclear weapons,” Cain wrote in her email.

Returning the favor

Like most campaign fundraising emails, Cain’s was laced with links to collect donations. But in this case, she was asking supporters to donate to the Council for a Livable World directly, not to her campaign.

Cain’s not the only defeated candidate directing her supporters to other outlets after the election. In an email with the subject line “Keeping up the fight,” former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold urged “grass-roots progressives” to support other organizations that helped him during the campaign. 

“I want to return the favor to a couple of those groups after the election, and ask you to consider supporting their causes directly if you don’t already,” Feingold wrote. “Over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of these groups. I encourage you to sign up and join them.”

After losing two primaries this year — one for the Senate and one for North Carolina’s 2nd District — perennial North Carolina Republican candidate Greg Brannon stopped sending emails on behalf of his campaign.

But he didn’t stop sending emails. His email list started receiving messages from him on behalf of Principled PAC, which, as he described it, supported “pro-liberty candidates” running for House and Senate. 

Multiple uses

There are various post-election uses for the email lists of defeated candidates.

Cain intends to keep her list updated on what she’s doing. But at the same time, she’s conscious of not flooding her supporters’ inboxes. “People find it annoying, and I don’t want to be part of that frustration,” she said. She isn’t sure whether she’ll send emails for any other organization. 

Candidates who have run for office multiple times may have spent years building up their email lists, which can make those lists valuable resources for others. “I think of it as an asset,” Cain said. 

Mailing lists can be donated to charitable organizations, according to the Federal Election Commission, and can also be sold or rented to other political entities so long as the price reflects the actual value of the list.

Most commonly, big-name politicians with a large following may opt to rent or sell their lists to other candidates. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, rented out his list to Indiana Rep. Todd Young when he was fundraising for his Senate bid.

In a traditional agreement, the renter pays a flat fee, either through a broker or directly to the candidate whose list they’re renting, for usage of the list for a set number of communications.

Lists are valued based on what’s known in the digital marketing world as “cost per thousand impressions,” or CPMs.

But it’s sometimes hard to know what the renter’s getting.

“It’s also dark market,” said Michael Duncan, a digital media strategist at Cavalry, a Republican consulting firm. That’s because the list may contain inactive emails.

A less risky way to rent emails is through revenue sharing, where the money raised is split between the candidate renting the email list and its original owner. Walker did this with other GOP presidential candidates this year to pay off his own presidential campaign debt.

“The broker has an incentive to provide you with a good list to raise money for both parties,” Duncan said.

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