"Hey Glenn..." begins one of many emails received from President Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Once again, Election Day is around the corner. Everywhere we turn, we see the smiling faces of candidates surrounded by their families. We hear their appeals for our votes and pleas to open our wallets. And we are subjected to an enormous volume of television and online advertising, and postcards overflowing our mailboxes.
We may hate the emails most of all. Spam clogs our inboxes and represents an infringement on our cherished privacy, not to mention the billions of dollars it costs society in protection and lost productivity.
In the U.S., the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 attempts to protect us from much of this. But what category of email is beyond the reach of these regulations? Political emails -- not surprising when one considers the apparent conflict of interest between our representatives as lawmakers versus perpetual candidates.
According to the Geneva-based Spamhaus Project, an organization dedicated to stopping spam from being sent worldwide, the introduction of the CAN-SPAM Act in the U.S. was “a serious failure of the United States government to understand the Spam problem.“ Rather than making spam illegal, the U.S. opted to regulate the activity, providing a variety of legal mechanisms for email mass marketing (political campaigns included).This isn’t to claim that all political email should be considered spam, nor even a gray area of legality. We may be on these lists through our own doing. Perhaps we signed up on a party website, subscribed to a candidate's newsletter, "joined" a cause, or directly supported a campaign with a financial contribution.
They may share it with vendors, consultants, service providers, candidates, organizations, groups, or causes – essentially, with anyone they choose.
Email marketing, including that of political campaigns, is big business. Candidates need votes; but just as importantly, they need money. It is clear that the emails, postcards, and other communication we receive from campaigns are seeking the latter. The business axiom, "your best prospects are your current customers," certainly applies to political fundraising. A donor today is a potential donor tomorrow.
As CNN reported last year, the average cost to win a Senate race in 2012 was $11.4 million -- a House seat, $1.6 million. The total expenditures by candidates, parties, and other groups influencing federal elections, according for the Center for Responsive Politics, reached over $6.2 billion in 2012. Over half of these amounts came from individual donors.
The science behind these solicitations is impressive. As reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, President Obama raised $690 million online in the 2012 campaign, largely as a result of fundraising emails.
How many of us received emails from Obama saying, "Do this for Michelle," or "Join me for dinner"? According to Bloomberg’s sources: "The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines — often as many as 18 variations — before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers."The requests are often small: "send us just $1," or $3 or $10. That small contribution will invariably lead to future requests, more and more desperate pleas: "just 24 hours left, won't you help us?"
Given the seemingly never-ending onslaught, we may choose to tread carefully. Is it possible that some people will not donate in order to avoid being flagged as a potential future contributor? This seems a fair assumption.
So what's the average citizen to do? Unsubscribing seems an uphill battle. Once our information is “shared” with other organizations, it is nearly impossible to trace and remove our names from each separate list.
Third party database suppliers make it easy for campaigns to obtain electronic lists of voters’ names, postal and email addresses, even their voting history and demographics. There is no apparent need to even subscribe in the first place. They already know who we are and where we live.
Attempts to insulate ourselves from the onslaught may be an exercise in futility. My father passed away over a year ago. He was an avid political junkie, and a supporter of selected campaigns. Political mailings are still being sent to him, now forwarded to my address, and I suspect the solicitation emails continue as well. Clearly, dying is not enough to get off these lists.
The scorecard, by the way: in four days since submitting my email address to the RNC and DNC websites, I have received three emails from the Republicans and eight from the Democrats, all soliciting donations. At least now I’m clear about what I signed up for.