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Your email address could be worth $8 to a political campaign

With emphasis on small donors, Democrats are under pressure to grow email lists

President Trump is criticizing Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke just hours before heading to his native El Paso to visit victims of a mass shooting there. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Trump is criticizing Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke just hours before heading to his native El Paso to visit victims of a mass shooting there. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With Democrats up and down the ballot eschewing corporate PAC money, and the Democratic National Committee setting a grassroots fundraising threshold to get onto the presidential debate stage, connecting with small donors is more important than ever. 

Email remains one of the best ways to do that, and with the emphasis on small donors, Democratic candidates are under even more pressure to grow their distribution lists.

So many more candidates are trying to build grassroots fundraising bases now that potential donors may be signed up for multiple lists — including for candidates running for the same office — all asking for their money. That competition could depress the size of donations and number of times that donors on multiple lists give to any one candidate.

“Which is why building a real list of highly qualified prospects is really important right now,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, the founder of the digital firm New Blue Interactive. 

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So how are Democrats doing that heading into 2020?

Not everyone can have a stump speech or campaign video that goes viral, the way 2018 Kentucky candidate Amy McGrath did. Most congressional candidates have to work harder than that, and spend more money. 

You can always get what you want

Candidates are increasingly spending money on social media ads that drive people to their websites, where they hopefully will sign up, and donate.

Many Democratic presidential candidates are buying Facebook ads, for example, that tout their opposition to big donors in hopes of luring small donors. The Democratic presidential candidates who have spent the most on Facebook over the past year both ran for Senate in 2018. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has spent $8.6 million and California Sen. Kamala Harris has spent $1.87 million. (President Donald Trump has spent more than $11 million since May 2018.) 

Under the system known as “paid acquisition” in the industry, candidates are spending money on targeted advertising on platforms such as Facebook to acquire names that are best suited to be potential donors to their campaigns.

“The long-term return on investment will be two, three, four times the investment of what you put in,” one Democratic digital strategist said. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been encouraging early digital acquisitions so that candidates have more robust email lists for the longest time possible, especially heading into a presidential year with more competition.

Joint actions

Anyone who’s signed up for a politician’s email list knows by now that those missives have a way of proliferating. Someone who subscribed to one candidate’s list years ago is probably receiving emails from other candidates they may never even have heard of. There are several ways that can happen.

Minnesota freshman Rep. Angie Craig emailed her campaign list on Tuesday with a petition urging the Senate to “pass HR1,” the government overhaul legislation the House passed last month. At the very bottom of the email was a small hyperlink to donate to Craig’s campaign. But the email wasn’t about raising money for Craig, at least not directly.

Clicking on the much larger links in the email to “sign on” or “add your name” took the recipient to a petition. At the very bottom, in small, light grey text, was the disclosure that revealed the petition was paid for by a range of politicians and organizations that include 20 current Democratic House members, one primary challenger to a sitting House Democrat, two candidates for the Democratic nomination in Georgia’s 7th District, two other House candidates, one mayoral candidate, a state auditor, PACs, a progressive digital firm, and what appears to be a custom trophy manufacturing business based in Massachusetts.

In another example, California Rep. Linda Sanchez on Monday told her list that she needed 100,000 “original Citizen Co-Sponsors of the Medicare for All bill” for it to pass. Besides Sanchez’s own campaign committee, 16 other candidates and organizations paid for the petition, including activist networks such as Left Action and Kos Media, LLC.

Each of the groups sponsoring the petition can send it to their email subscribers. When one of those subscribers signs the petition, his or her name can be shared with another group on the petition. The digital teams running the petition make sure every sponsoring organization that got one of their subscribers to sign the petition also gets a new name — who signed up through someone else’s list — in return. 

Trading and selling

Joint action emails are not the only way people start receiving emails from lists they didn’t sign up for. Candidates can also swap names.

They’re not trading actual names; they’re trading email addresses of equal value. That means that if one campaign is handing over a bucket of names of people who have donated in the last 60 days, they need to receive from the other campaign names of people who have also donated in the last 60 days. An even exchange doesn’t have be reported as an in-kind contribution to the Federal Election Commission.

This method is generally less preferred since campaigns want people to want to sign up for their emails.“We prefer opt-ins,” said another Democratic digital strategist. “List swaps are something that inevitably happens in the industry as candidates don’t always have money to invest in paid acquisition. But we know from experience that opt-ins are often more valuable supporters.”

Candidates can also buy or rent lists from each other, although those transactions are not always transparent. A candidate might list a payment to a digital firm on its FEC report, but it may not say that it’s for renting a list. And even if it did, it’s impossible to know from public disclosures how substantial a list the candidate is actually getting.

Sometimes retiring lawmakers or losing candidates will rent or sell their lists. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, shared his list with other candidates to help pay off his own presidential campaign debt. Under this revenue-sharing agreement, which is more common among Republicans, the money raised from a fundraising email is split between the candidate renting the distribution list and its original owner.

It’s rare to buy a full list outright. Candidates are more likely to rent a portion of a list, filtered for the parameters the renter is looking for, rather than pay for an entire list, which could contain inactive emails. 

Buying or renting a list requires determining the value of the names and addresses on the list with an independent consultant. That calculation is not an exact science and depends on many factors such as what percentage of the list is donors, how frequently and how recently they have given or clicked on anything in the email, and how much the list overall has raised. 

When it comes to payment, the renter may pay a fee per email blast sent to the list or a fixed cost for each sign-up that comes from a list rental email. Each rented name could cost in the $2 to $3 range, depending on the vendor and the parameters of the deal. Names on a smaller, more localized or issue-specific campaign could cost between $5 and $8, while names on a big national list could cost as little as 40 or 50 cents. 

Lists quickly lose their value if candidates and former candidates don’t keep them active. That’s why Senate candidates who aren’t in cycle continue to send emails in the years between their re-elections. And it’s one big reason many of the Democratic presidential contenders coming from the Senate already have robust lists.

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