Enough with the crazy emails, Mr. President!

The president’s online campaign staff has always kept close email tabs on me. But now they’re getting personal

By Joan Walsh
Published July 5, 2013 2:45PM (EDT)
               (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

I’ve never understood the Obama team’s email strategy – going back to all those messages from Barack with the inscrutable subject line, “Hey.” But hey, what do I know? Certainly they work: Of the $690 million the president raised online in 2012, more than $500 million came from those fundraising emails.  “‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration,” the campaign’s email director told Business Week. One single email from Obama with the subject line “I will be outspent” hauled in over $2.6 million.

At some point last year, though, the tone got just a little weirder, as email began arriving with a record of my campaign contributions – which, in my case, were always correctly listed as zero. I joined the Obama for America list sometime back in 2007, with my personal email (which I rarely check anymore), to keep tabs on the messaging as a reporter, not as a supporter. So I never gave any money. I found something a little nagging about the constant reminder that I was a big zero in the campaign’s database, but there wasn’t any messaging around it – it was actually presented as though I was a campaign donor, and they were trying to track my giving. Maybe that was a subtle nudge, but it was too subtle for me.

But now, repurposed as Organizing for Action, they’ve stepped up the guilt. Right before the June 30 second quarter fundraising deadline, the pace of emails picked up. Some were friendly. “Joan and the President” was the subject line of one urging me to give money to be entered into a lottery to meet Barack Obama. Another announced, “You could get a hug from the president.” That would be nice.

But the next was a little ruder.

“Um,” it began. “Um” is what my daughter says right before reminding me I didn’t do something I promised to do. That’s never good.

Joan --

What's stopping you?

It's free. It's easy. It's, um ... meeting the President.

Wow, I must be an idiot. Not wanting to, um … meet the president?

Then came the subject line “Not an OFA donor,” in which development director Kathy Gasparine told me flat out: “I was looking at our records associated with this exact email address -- and it looks like you haven't chipped in yet.” That felt personal, as though I’d fallen behind in credit card payments. She urged me to donate $5.

Just a day later, OFA director Jon Carson was fed up with me. “Is this a mistake?” the subject line demanded. It got worse:

Joan --

I just got a list of everyone who's pitching in to build Organizing for Action -- and it looks like you're not part of it.

Here's the record we have for this exact email address:

-- Organizing for Action member: No
-- Suggested donation today: $5

So here I am, on the Sunday morning of the biggest deadline we've faced as a young organization, and I'm asking you, earnestly and directly:

Please chip in $5 or more to build OFA today:

We have so many big fights we want to take on, and what we do depends on the resources we have at midnight tonight.

I hope you'll help.



Jon! Yikes. I’m glad you’re out there – OFA is doing some excellent outreach on immigration reform and its home page urges people to support the president’s climate change moves. That’s great! But what’s with the guilt, Jon?

Since the Obama campaign did massive A/B testing on its email subject lines and messaging during the campaign, I have to wonder if they’ve determined that guilt and shame motivates their demographic. Or maybe they really are fed up with me, and they’re testing messaging on the deadbeats who clog up their mailing lists but never give any money.

On the other hand, given all the genius data-mining they’ve done, with behavioral targeting designed to tailor messages to real individuals, you’d think they’d figure out that I’m never, ever going to give money to them, because I’m a journalist. I guess it’s reassuring they haven’t gotten that personal with me – yet. So I’m outing myself proactively.


Guys, I’m a journalist. I can’t give money to OFA.

But even if I could, I wouldn’t reply to guilt-tripping.

That big zero attached to my email address? It’s kind of creepy? I’m more than a number.

I hope you’ll help.

Won’t you knock it off?



Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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