- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2014

They’re optimistic, pessimistic, groveling — and sometimes they just downright try to shame you into donating.

The last-minute dash for cash among political campaigns leads to all sorts of bizarre email appeals, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee telling supporters that they are tired of being ignored and need you to pony up.

With deadlines approaching, and many contributors tapped out or fed up with the repeated pleas, campaigns have had to explore new ways to cut through the inbox clutter and try to wring dollars out of donors in the crucial waning days of the campaign.

“I’m really disappointed — and worried,” Senate Republicans said in one of their shame-inducing fundraising emails to supporters earlier this month. “Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Ben Carson, Mike Lee, and John McCain have all taken the time to contact you and ask for your support — but unless my information is wrong, we haven’t heard from you.”

Indeed, it’s likely they didn’t hear from most of those to whom they sent emails. The response rate is very low. But so is the overhead cost of sending the emails, which frees campaigns up to be as creative as they can to try to figure out the secret to cracking open supporters’ wallets.

A decade ago, online fundraising was considered revolutionary. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean tapped Internet-based appeals to shatter fundraising records in the 2004 Democratic primary, and then-candidate Barack Obama showed the world how to harness small-dollar online donations into an unstoppable campaign machine in 2008.

Now, however, every political operation from big presidential campaigns to grass-roots operations has caught on, and they’re all competing for the same money, which has created a sort of arms race for eyeballs.

Some of the emails seem downright forward, only slightly less personally intrusive than the scam emails that populate spam folders.

The goal, of course, is to get past the reflexive “delete” reaction that most busy people have to unwanted emails. One way to do that is to try to mimic a message someone would actually be getting from a friend, colleague or even an acquaintance.

“Did I see you yesterday?” asks one campaign, clearly hoping to get past the reflex. “We can win,” promises another, while a third vows that together “we can change Washington.”

Others are more pessimistic: “Accept defeat,” the DCCC said in a plea Thursday, saying it was “completely out of ideas” for how to get a response from donors. That email went on to warn that Democrats were being swamped by spending from “the Koch Brothers.”

As deadlines approach, campaigns will even craft a story that plays out over the hours, telling donors funds are well short of their goal, then sending repeated updates until the last minute, when, miraculously, they just made it to a self-imposed arbitrary target.

“There is something a little demeaning about how both sides have used the asserted desperation of elected officials to raise money. But I’m sure it’s nothing compared to how 2016 will be,” said Bill Burton, a longtime Democratic operative who co-founded Priorities USA Action, a heavy-hitter political action committee.

Campaigns can track almost anything nowadays — including whether someone has opened an email, whether they click on the links and whether they end up giving.

Taryn Rosenkranz, CEO of New Blue Interactive, a digital fundraising and communications firm, said campaigns will often try two different versions of an appeal on a small group of email addresses, see which gets a better response, and then go with that option.

This year’s eyeballs arms race is occurring because campaigns need to find ways to get donors excited for what’s an otherwise run-of-the-mill election.

For the last decade there’s been something else to gin up excitement: 2004 pioneered online giving, 2006 and 2010 saw huge battles for control of the House, and 2008 and 2012 were presidential election years. Not so this year, Ms. Rosenkranz said.

“This has been the first time that I feel like there’s not really something motivating people, so we’re seeing people think outside the box,” she said. “People are going more and more over-the-top, because they can’t sustain attention right now.”

She said there’s no magic approach that works across all campaigns. Some candidates can pull off humor — Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat and former performer on “Saturday Night Live” comes to mind — but for others, it’s forced. She said she tells clients to be authentic to themselves as candidates, because voters can tell.

Doug Heye, a GOP operative who’s worked on Capitol Hill, in congressional campaigns and at the Republican National Committee, said everyone’s still experimenting.

While the creep factor of knowing a campaign is tracking your email clicking habits is high — the NRSC even includes a supposed “donor record” number in its emails to drive home its tracking abilities — Mr. Heye said it must be working, since campaigns know what’s successful and stick with it.

“This is still a new science,” he said.

Anyone who’s on campaign mailing lists immediately notices the vast number of names that ask for cash. The NRSC’s shaming email alone mentions four different GOP luminaries in its plea.

Campaigns know which names work best, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan appear to be popular this cycle.

Some successful names, though, aren’t necessarily who you’d expect.

Mr. Heye said he’d been told Karl Rove was one of those who had a high click rate, which means more people opened messages with his name attached and were more likely to click the links to see what he had to say.

The Center for Responsive Politics this week projected total campaign spending for the 2014 election cycle at $3.67 billion.

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