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

Because scare tactics work.

Add to Briefcase
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.

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.