‘DOOMED’: Why Do Fundraising Emails Sound So Scary?

Because scare tactics work.

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Stephanie Stamm and Emma Roller
May 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

If you were to judge the state of U.S. polit­ics by the sub­ject lines of party fun­drais­ing emails, you’d think the apo­ca­lypse was nigh.

In the last two months, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has sent out email fun­drais­ing blasts with such sub­ject lines as:

  • “EVIS­CER­ATED” (5/29/14)
  • “Pain­ful De­feat” (5/29/14)
  • “DEV­AST­AT­ING de­feat” (5/28/14)
  • “FURI­OUS” (5/28/14)
  • “bad news” (5/28/14)
  • “CRUSH­ING blow” (5/27/14)
  • “throw in the tow­el” (5/27/14)
  • “OB­LIT­ER­ATED” (5/27/14)
  • “HOR­RI­FY­ING” (5/23/14)
  • “STAG­GER­ING set­back” (5/23/14)
  • “Dev­ast­at­ing blow” (5/15/14 and 4/29/14)
  • “DOOMED” (4/28/14)
  • “pain­ful loss” (4/27/14)
  • “MA­JOR EM­BAR­RASS­MENT” (4/24 and 4/30/14)

And a per­son­al fa­vor­ite: “all hope is lost.” (4/23/14)

If you opened one of those emails — and why wouldn’t you? — you’d real­ize these scorched-earth sub­ject lines were a way for party op­er­at­ives to work you in­to a lath­er about Demo­crats’ chances of win­ning back the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in Novem­ber. By their telling, all hope is lost un­less you donate $5 RIGHT NOW to de­feat the evil Koch broth­ers.

These scare tac­tics may seem ex­cess­ive, but they ap­pear to be work­ing. In the 2014 cam­paign cycle so far, the DCCC has raised more than $29 mil­lion in on­line dona­tions (this num­ber in­cludes dona­tions over $200). That’s $13 mil­lion more than the DCCC had raised on­line by this point in the 2012 elec­tion cycle.

The end is near. National Journal

There’s a pre­ced­ent for the suc­cess of fun­drais­ing emails that strike fear in­to the hearts of par­tis­ans. In 2012, the Obama cam­paign’s most suc­cess­ful fun­drais­ing emails had sub­ject lines like “I will be out­spent” and “Some scary num­bers.”

Where­as some of Demo­crats’ most suc­cess­ful fun­drais­ing emails in 2012 struck a cas­u­al, friendly tone — “Join me for din­ner?” or more simply, “Hey” — the tone of 2014’s emails could be more ac­cur­ately de­scribed as “Sci­ent­ist who just found out a cata­stroph­ic met­eor is crash­ing in­to Earth.”

Of course, sen­sa­tion­al­ism is a bi­par­tis­an trait. The DCCC’s Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part, the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, has used the Benghazi ter­ror at­tack as a fun­drais­ing tool — draw­ing scorn from mem­bers of its own party, in­clud­ing Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chair­man of the House se­lect com­mit­tee on Benghazi. The NR­CC has also already re­gistered at least 15 fake web­sites mas­quer­ad­ing as Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates to neg­at­ively tar­get them.

The NR­CC doesn’t share how much money it has raised through on­line dona­tions, but ex­pressed con­fid­ence in its game. “Throughout the cycle, we’ve ex­pan­ded our di­git­al fun­drais­ing ef­forts and have seen in­cred­ible growth,” NR­CC spokes­wo­man An­drea Bozek told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “They have Pres­id­ent Obama, Vice Pres­id­ent Biden, and Nancy Pelosi out there rais­ing money for them left and right. They’ll stop at noth­ing to take back the House.”

On Thursday, the DCCC re­served nearly $44 mil­lion to spend on tele­vi­sion ads in 36 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts. Com­pare that num­ber with 2010, when the or­gan­iz­a­tion re­served $28 mil­lion to spend on ad­vert­ising.

As Scott Bland wrote in Feb­ru­ary, House Demo­crats have suc­cess­fully out­raised House Re­pub­lic­ans since 2011, des­pite be­ing in the minor­ity. Over­all, the DCCC has raised more than $106 mil­lion so far this elec­tion cycle; the NR­CC has raised nearly $86 mil­lion.

“Start­ing in the 2012 cycle, the DCCC has seen an ex­plo­sion in on­line dona­tions,” DCCC spokes­man Josh Schwer­in told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We rely on our grass­roots sup­port­ers to keep pace with the mil­lions of dol­lars we face from the likes of the Koch broth­ers.”

Schwer­in did not say wheth­er the DCCC’s dra­mat­ic sub­ject lines are more suc­cess­ful at get­ting people to open the emails — and their wal­lets. But it’s safe to as­sume that, if they keep re­turn­ing to the same tac­tic, it’s prob­ably work­ing. These types of emails un­der­go rig­or­ous test­ing, from their sub­ject lines and mes­sage word­ings to their format­ting and the amount of money they ask for.

The Obama cam­paign team would test dozens of vari­ations be­fore set­tling on the per­fectly cal­ib­rated email blast. As Toby Fall­s­graff — the former email dir­ect­or for the Obama cam­paign — told Busi­nes­s­week, “When we saw something that really moved the dial, we would ad­opt it.”

This type of di­git­al ana­lyt­ics has be­come in­creas­ingly im­port­ant to cam­paigns that de­pend on wads of cash for suc­cess. And that ana­lys­is says the Koch broth­ers are the bo­gey­men un­der Demo­crat­ic donors’ beds.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story used an in­cor­rect num­ber for 2014 fun­drais­ing totals from the DCCC.