Data Defeats Truman: How Email Marketing Will Elect a President

During the U.S. presidential campaign cycle, Americans receive upwards of 10 billion political campaign emails. Those not marked as spam have the potential to drive a considerable portion of individual donations, in turn resulting in successful presidential runs.

Through November 8, 2016, Havas helia is analyzing candidates’ email and social media marketing to determine what works (and what doesn’t). We sat down with the hosts of the “Data Defeats Truman” podcast, Kyle Britt, senior digital strategist at Havas helia, and Michael Kinstlinger, email marketing manager at Havas helia, for a deep-dive into the power of CRM communications in political campaigns.


The Mag: Money has been a hot topic in this year’s campaign. How important are financial contributions to the path to the White House?

KB: Well, since we’re still in the primary season, let’s talk about money in the primaries. There are two primaries in the presidential election: there’s the delegate primary, which we commonly think of and which is covered extensively in the news media, but there’s another primary at play. It’s the money primary, convincing financial donors or individual donors to invest in your campaign enough to pay for the mechanisms of the campaign. To get the attention of enough voters to win the delegate primary, you need to do well enough in the money primary. Obviously, money can’t save a hapless candidate, as Jeb Bush proves, but a lack of money will absolutely kill a candidacy, as it already has with a number of republicans this cycle.

MK: As far as overall donations, HUGE impact. This can’t be overstated. Once you get past the primaries, there’s another big data point that stuck out to us. Since 1968, 10 of the 12 presidential elections have been won by the candidate who spent the most money. Unfortunately for Bob Dole, he was involved in both failed campaigns that spent more than the winners. Some candidates and citizens want the money out of politics, but the winners never say that; they understand its importance. As far as individual campaigns, this basically fuels the need and importance for solid and successful email marketing. Senators Cruz and Sanders have solicited an impressive amount of low-dollar donations, with successful online campaigns fueling this.

KB: Money doesn’t equal votes, but if you don’t get huge amounts of earned media, like Donald Trump does, you have to buy your way into the attention span of the voter.


The Mag: Email marketing plays a major role in raising this money. What does the way candidates talk to voters say about them and their chances at becoming president?

MK: When it comes to how they’ll perform as president, it says a lot. We tend to look at email marketing like a candidate loyalty club. If candidate messages are the same over and over, and using the same approaches and content as in debates and interviews, why would you want to be on their lists, once you’ve donated? Both the technology and the creative choices candidates make says a lot about how they would run the country and how they deal with both identifying and solving problems.

KB: I’m not sure the average voter understands how much of a role email plays in raising money. This is a surprising data point: in 2008 and 2012, more than half of President Obama’s individual campaign contributions were attributable to email marketing. Hundreds of millions of dollars were driven directly by email, a method of campaign communication that really wasn’t a mass-market option until three presidential elections before Obama. But candidates seem to speak more candidly in email than they do in stump speeches or debates. And there’s a reason: their email subscribers are their base. To earn those donations, they have to amp up their base about their opponents. We see this play out between Clinton and Sanders especially. On stage at the debate, they are usually pretty tame and cordial, but the emails they send later that night and the next day are laced with barbs and poison arrows. If the more ardent supporters of the candidates don’t see a line of division, they won’t feel the need to reach into their pocketbooks and pony up another $20 or $50 to help their candidate win.

MK: Although every email sent is, in a sense, a new ask for money, some are better than others at making each appeal unique. Politics is about coalition and consensus building; it’s fascinating to see what the candidates and their teams are revealing in each email.


The Mag: Based on your data, who’s doing the best job and who’s doing the worst job at communicating with voters?

KB: It depends on your metric. In the end, the only metric that matters this spring is delegates, so if your communication isn’t garnering votes, how good is it? But on communication metrics alone, Sanders, Clinton, and Cruz are doing the best job in creating interesting, openable emails with clear calls to action. They have also been the clear winners the entire season so far. It seems to be paying off for them in the money primary as well. Interestingly, while Cruz’s emails are the best on the Republican side, he also has a distinct problem.

MK: Absolutely, while Ted Cruz’s emails are the best on the Republican side, we’ve also found that 30% of his emails are going to the spam folder, which means that he’s leaving A LOT of potential donations on the table.
KB: Yeah, if you use the same formula from Obama’s ’08 and ’12 campaigns, then Cruz has potentially left $7-10MM of potential donations on the table, while this large portion of his emails aren’t even getting seen.
The Mag: How are candidates using social media to connect with younger voters? And how are people responding to the use of memes, GIFs, and emojis?

MK: First off, the explosion and saturation of social media allows candidates to express more sides than they would via the traditional media channels.

KB: This is an ongoing topic we’re exploring. Candidates will always go where the voters are, so you’ll see that all five of the remaining major party candidates have Instagram and Snapchat accounts, each of them except Hillary have accounts on Vine, and all have incredibly active Twitter presences. Hillary has been a podcast guest for Buzzfeed during this campaign season, where she let her personality show more than on stage. The upside and downside of this has been the amplification of authenticity. When candidates have used memes, GIFs, and emojis in a way that’s consistent with culture, they get what you might call social “bonus points” in the way of additional amplification from their supporters. But the usage of these new communication “languages” also opens the door for candidates to feel condescending.

MK: The best marker of this happened when the Clinton campaign asked supporters to describe their feelings about their student loan debt “in three emoji or less.” Twitter users responded with varying levels of disapproval and disgust. But the positive effects of the usage of these new forms of expression seem to far outweigh the risks in most cases. The authenticity question is the issue of the first episode of the “Data Defeats Truman” podcast.

KB: Worth noting is the party-line split in usage of GIFs, memes, and emoji. Although Marco Rubio’s team used them some, the campaigns of Kasich, Trump, and Cruz have largely avoided them. This may be out of a fear of alienating younger voters or it may be for a simpler reason: like the voters, Democratic candidates’ staffs skew younger, so the number of staffers who “get it” may just be fewer than on Bernie or Hillary’s teams.


The Mag: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have all made guest appearances on Saturday Night Live during their primary campaigns. How much of an impact does involvement in pop culture have?

MK: Taking part in pop culture doesn’t have much of an impact, but NOT doing it is worse. When Bill Clinton went on Arsenio Hall in the summer of 1992, it was a revelation because it allowed him to seem more personable and real to an urban demographic.

KB: This relates back to authenticity as well. Younger voters especially want to feel like their candidate is a real, relatable person with flaws and a sense of humor. The other voting generations also want to feel like they are being told the truth, and that’s easier if the candidate feels authentic. Being able to go on a late night talk show or SNL and poke fun at yourself is part of communicating that. Mitt Romney for instance, didn’t do that. Neither did George W. Bush. But Nixon’s team invented the town hall meeting and Nixon himself predated Clinton’s appearance on Arsenio Hall by playing piano on Jack Parr in 1962.


The Mag: If the election were to be held tomorrow, based on your findings so far, what outcome would we see?

MK: Without any knowledge of the campaign, if we were just looking at emails, we’d say that Donald Trump is invisible to the voters since he emails so infrequently and that Hillary was down in the polls, since her recent communications have been more anxious as she responds to Bernie’s successes in fundraising and primaries.

KB: If the nominees were decided by an all-state vote tomorrow, fundraising would dictate a Cruz-Sanders general election race, but this is why we’ve been studying it so closely. Our hypothesis in July was that what candidates say via email and social media matters, but our findings have proven that while what a candidate says matters, being heard by the public matters more. That’s why you see Clinton and Trump in the lead. For whatever challenge is being put up against them by their opponents, they control the respective narratives.


The Mag: You’re clearly passionate about politics. How are you tapping into your various interests and talents with your work at helia?

KB: I feel like a digital storyteller by blood. My father was a preacher and my mother was a computer programmer when I was born. When I went to college, I studied story through the lens of film; Michael did too, interestingly. I’m infinitely interested in the narrative. Of a film. Of a company. Of a brand. Of an election. And at Havas helia, we weave creative stories using data. It’s a marriage of the two things I feel most at home with.

MK: I’ve been involved in email marketing for over a dozen years. Whether B2C, B2B or “C2V” (candidate to voter), even in an election, the same principles hold true: get into the inbox, have an appealing subject line, and make a great case for why someone should engage with what you’re trying to sell. The part about marketing I love is trying to discover what’s working and why. That will always fuel me.