Flood of campaign emails in Michigan scares up funds

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Fear-driven campaign solicitations are inundating Michigan email inboxes as congressional and presidential candidates seek to maximize financial contributions during the last few weeks before Election Day.

Many email pitches promote the idea that campaigns are nearing a cash crisis or are falling woefully short of their fundraising goals while their opponents fare better — or at least better than expected. Some digital appeals even question whether potential donors have a pulse.

“ARE YOU ALIVE ... ?” begins a Sept. 30 email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pleading for more donations to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“This week has NOT gone as planned. Trump raised a record amount, launched a massive attack campaign. ... Do you want President Trump and a Republican Congress? Don’t wait a second. Don’t even read the rest of this email.”

These “hair-on-fire”-style appeals for financial contributions are becoming more common as candidates ramp up digital outreach efforts, campaign strategy experts said. They are trying to emulate the success Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign had in 2008 with mass email fundraising that helped propel the 47-year-old Illinois U.S. senator into the White House.

“You want to inspire people to take action and the best way to do that is to grab people emotionally,” said Joshua Pugh of the Grassroots Michigan consulting firm, who confirms he has written similar emails. “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.”

Some consultants said the tactic has its drawbacks, however.

“I’m not sure it works,” said Vanguard Public Affairs President T.J. Bucholz, a Lansing area Democratic political consultant. “Emails like that can be a double edge.”

People who don’t closely follow crisis-driven campaign politics might think a candidate’s team isn’t doing a good job or the candidate isn’t working as hard as needed, Bucholz said.

“I’d like an email that says ‘we’ve made our goal, we’d like to do better,’ ” he said. But fundraisers rarely take that route because “fear is a great motivator.”

Funding deadline ‘extended’

The fear-mongering phenomenon was in full drive not only during mid-October but at the end of last month as campaign donation reporting periods neared deadlines. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee granted itself an “extension” to rouse more cash in an Oct. 1 email.

“We fell short last night for the first time in this election. By a whopping $500,000,” according to the email. “If we can’t fix this today, our chance to win this election will be doomed.”

By 2 p.m. the same day, Democrats were “getting BURIED out there in the final 5 weeks.” At 5:38 p.m., U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, shared her “disappointment.” At 6:44 p.m., victory was slipping away: “We’re sorry to be harsh, but if we fall short on tonight’s extended deadline, it’ll be near impossible to win this election.”

But it was morning in America the next day. “OK, we get it — we leaned on grassroots supporters A LOT last month,” the Oct. 2 DCCC email reported. “But the support we saw from our grassroots Democrats was INCREDIBLE!!!”

Republicans take a similar approach to encourage supporters to donate, said GOP political strategist Stu Sandler. The tactic is working well now, but Sandler agreed the emails could potentially turn people away or make them more cynical about politics.

“Friend, I just got off the phone with my finance director and we’re still short of our fundraising goal this quarter,” began another email from U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican in a tough re-election battle in the 7th Congressional District.

Republican incumbent Walberg raised about $73,600 more than Democratic state Rep. Gretchen Driskell of Saline through Sept. 30, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Both have raised more than $2 million, with Driskell having $428,108 in cash left and Walberg having $1.1 million cash on hand.

The fear tactic’s effectiveness has helped fuel Driskell’s fundraising success, Pugh said.

The pitches aren’t true or are exaggerated, he and other experts acknowledge. In person, Walberg said he is not falling short of his campaign’s fundraising goals, despite the email’s claim to the contrary.

“We always encourage,” Walberg said. “I think we’re doing well. But you never know what you’ll need. … Outside forces could come in the final two weeks and dump massive amounts, and we wouldn’t be ready for it. That’s why we keep moving.”

Tactic coincides with emails

Scare tactics came to the fore as emails became a crucial part of campaign outreach, said Pugh, a 2008 field organizer for Obama. Pugh and East Lansing political consultant Mark Grebner say they’re not aware of it happening prior to 2008.

Entire firms are dedicated to such outreach. Their success is not only measured in money raised but in percentage of emails opened. More clicks means more people are paying attention. It can also mean more cash.

“I imagine they’ve tried (the) ‘Oh, my God, the Huns are coming’ (approach),” Grebner said. “They discovered that the end of the world is much more compelling than the second coming.”

While the stick is a time-tested motivators, sometimes the carrot works too. The Trump campaign, for example, has offered plane rides to rallies and even a dinner with the candidate to encourage donations.

The Democrats have done likewise. A mother and daughter duo were flown to Chicago, where they met Obama during a fundraising event.

But alarm and cash-flow woes remain the prevalent pitch. Another email sent Tuesdayfrom 1st Congressional District Republican candidate Jack Bergman’s campaign claims it is “dangerously underfunded” and urges donations.

The campaign of the retired Marine Corps lieutenant general generated $730,055 in contributions this election cycle through Sept. 30 while Democratic opponent Lon Johnson, the former state party chairman, raised more than $1.74 million. Bergman had about $105,000 in cash left, while Johnson had about $135,000.

Bergman’s campaign manager Tony Lis neither confirmed nor denied the veracity of the claim.

“This is nothing more than a typical campaign fundraising email,” said political consultant and Bergman ally John Yob in an email.

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein