If you receive political fundraising emails, you know the end is near.
As Politico reported recently, pessimism brings in the donations, and as the Wall Street Journal confirmed, studies back that up: “Donors and would-be donors are more likely to click on a fundraising email and contribute if the candidate highlights a recent poll that shows him or her trailing by a narrow margin.”
For me, this creates a parallel world to the one where clouds of happy talk billow from campaigns’ headquarters. I have been on the phone with a campaign staffer hearing how every sign points to his candidate’s success while simultaneously receiving an email from the same campaign claiming that the hordes are cresting over the parapet.
Perhaps it’s effective, but there’s a larger point to be made about political fundraising emails: They are a bouillon cube of all that is awful about American politics—the grasping for money, the neediness, the phony plays on your emotion, the baiting, and reduction of anything complex into its most incendiary form. What makes these emails bad is not the breadth of their insult—you can opt out of receiving them, which makes them easier to avoid than a television commercial—but what it says about the people who send them. Here’s the short version: They think you’re stupid.
“Unless everyone from Michelle to you—and your neighbor—does his or her part, DEMOCRATS COULD LOSE,” reads one from Tuesday from the Democratic Governors Association, referring to the first lady. Yesterday I got seven appeals from the DGA. Today, it’s been three already. The subject line of one: “ARRG!”
“No matter what happens next (and we KNOW there’ll be a next), you can do ONE thing right now to stop New Hampshire from falling into Brown’s hands,” reads one from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. “Give $5 or more now—before midnight—to stop Brown’s bandwagon from stealing New Hampshire.”
Here’s one that addresses me as “Dear Patriot,” and informs me that “left-wing groups are going all-out to defeat Joni Ernst in Iowa. And I’m sad to say that their efforts are paying off.” Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing for MoveOn.org, is worried, too: “We’re all in deep trouble.” The ones from social conservative activist Gary Bauer are fun: “Click here now to stop Barack Obama’s destruction of America!”
There are hundreds more like this beseeching and screaming in my inbox. Many of them look like ransom letters, with highlighted passages, bold lettering, and SCATTERSHOT CAPITALIZATION. At the current trajectory of mushrooming calamity, I expect to receive a subject line soon that reads: “This email is coming from inside the house.” Or maybe, “Donate to this campaign or the dog gets it.”
Let’s catalog the deceit. The campaigns are purposefully distorting the current state of things in order to take your money. That presumably is good training for getting into office when that becomes a politician’s full-time job, but that isn’t something we should take lying down. The poll questions candidates ask you in these emails are not intended to glean public opinion for the purposes of shaping policy. They’re measuring how much you engaged with their emails and using your answers to figure out what issue will make you likely to donate when they send you the next frantic email about that specific issue.
“Just out of a meeting, John” reads an email from Rep. Paul Ryan asking for money. I’m sure the congressman is perpetually in a state of being just out of a meeting, but of course he wasn’t just out of the meeting he’s pretending to have left in order to hit send. “I’ve got a critical campaign strategy meeting in a few minutes, so I’ll have to be quick,” writes Mia Love, a congressional candidate in Utah. I asked one of the people under whose name these emails are sent what he thought about having to say such dopey things and he reacted in horror because he hadn’t written or seen it. (So don’t go framing that missive from Barbra Streisand. It’s not from her.)
The idea is to make the email seem personal, which is what makes the deception so pernicious. The greasy-smocked minion who cooks up these things tries to slip them past not just your spam filters, but your internal filters. The Obama campaign’s online fundraising team spent hours crafting subject lines to make sure you clicked on them. They ruined our lives by coming up with one that simply reads “Hey,” which was tremendously successful. “Hey” tricks unsuspecting and dimwitted people like me into thinking the note is from a person I actually want to hear from. Email is still a private space where you sometimes get a notice from your kid’s teacher or an encouraging word from your wife. You’re susceptible to a play on that weakness in your defenses. When you discover you’ve been duped, the anger burns with no prospect of cooling ointment.
These appeals are like phishing scams—but without the occasionally amusing perversion of the language that we get from hackers in Kazakhstan. It would be at least fun if they had some of that. “I am pleased to be knowing you. Gladly! Jeanne Shaheen considers herself triumphant and we do too. Despair if you do not join us by wiring us your banking numbers so that we might deposit our entire campaign treasury in your bank account until Election Day.”
When the emails are not making up fake polls, they traffic in outrage. This is the corrosive permanent condition of our politics. The message in these pleas for cash is remarkably consistent: Someone is somewhere doing something awful, and if he hasn’t gotten up to it yet, you can be sure that he’ll be minting fresh skullduggery any minute. So stay vigilant! Donate now! It’s a vicious circle. To keep everyone outraged requires money, which means more outraged fundraising emails.
These emails are not a grand problem, but they operate from this baseline premise: You are not very bright. Your emotions can be easily manipulated, and I will play on those emotions so that I can stay in office or rise to a higher one. When it becomes this easy to lie and manipulate so thoroughly and constantly that it becomes the background music to our politics, it should not simply wash over us without comment. Of course it’s hard to know where to register your complaint. You can try to respond to the sender of these emails, but you’ll only get a note saying that account doesn’t take incoming messages. They’re not listening, another way in which these emails mirror our politicians.