Re: “Hey:” – An Analysis of the Obama/Romney Emails

Early in 2012, I signed up for the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns’ email lists with a rarely used old email address. While I knew that this small dataset couldn’t reveal the extreme sophistication of their email strategies, I set out to analyze the emails I’d received (and rarely read) – and discovered some surprising differences in strategy (at least as it related to the emails I was sent).

The Emails in Numbers

From June 1st through November 5th, I got 35 and 37 emails from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama respectively (see chart above showing cumulative # of emails sent to me over time since June 1st).

There are two main differences you’ll notice – first, the sharp daily dose of Romney emails right after June 1st.  Second, the month-long gap that immediately followed them. This gap began June 18th – the same day that I clicked the unsubscribe button on the Romney emails from another email address (once I realized I was signed up twice). While I can’t prove it, impressively, the Romney campaign seemed to realize I might be close to unsubscribing and put me on pause for a month.

Who Sends the Emails

When we break the emails down by who sent them, the results get interesting:

Percentage of emails from each candidate by who sent them

The Obama campaign is twice as likely to send emails from Barack Obama (49% of overall emails coming from him) than the Mitt Romney campaign is to send them from Mitt Romney (23% of overall emails coming from him). While the campaigns are roughly equal on the number of emails coming from Michelle Obama vs Ann Romney or Joe Biden vs Paul Ryan, there is a major difference in the use of others – a bucket largely made up of Zac Moffatt and Matt Rhoades (other Romney staffers) and his son Tagg.

A few hypotheses for why this might be true:

  • A difference in strategy to add increased importance to emails from the candidate by sending fewer of them.
  • Less candidate allegiance from Republicans in this election (and a greater emphasis on the party).
  • Individual targeting or testing differences based on who I am. Had I exhibited some personal behavior that I liked emails from Obama but would prefer other people on the Romney campaign to Mitt? Is there someone out there who see the exact opposite of what I see?

The most interesting aspect of this finding is that it may reflect very real perceptions of what drives voters for each candidate – namely, more voters relating to Barack Obama on a personal level, and more potential Romney voters holding deeper party than candidate allegiances.

The One Word Subject Line

In a similar vein, while none of Romney’s emails had single word subject lines, about 1 in 7 of Obama’s did. Examples:

  • Joe
  • So
  • Hey (this was a common one)

The one word subject line evokes a certain casualness and personal relationship and this difference seems to parallel many of the media portrayals of the candidates.  Are the one word subject lines actually less effective for Romney? It’s hard to say, but what might be most clear is that the campaigns have developed real stylistic differences in how they talk to their constituents – and those could be rooted in the real differences of who their constituents typically are.

 The Enigmatic Colon

Very unexpectedly, 1 in 6 of the Barack Obama message subject lines ended in colons (and none of the Romney subjects). Here are a couple of examples:

  • Real Quick:
  • Urgent:
  • This Matters:
  • Deadline:

Given how high this number is, my guess is that the Obama campaign has tested (and shown) that ending a message in a colon makes people more likely to read it.  While the circumstances of a presidential campaign are obviously very unique, this isn’t a piece of advice I’ve heard elsewhere (and certainly not one that the Romney campaign has acted on in their emails to me).

The Future of Email may contain more Colons

First off, all of these analyses are based on a single person, and as ProPublica’s attempt to reverse engineer email strategies is starting to show, there are wide variations in what you’ll receive based on where you live, how old you are, whether you’ve donated, etc. As these systems get more complex, it will become more and more difficult to analyze any company or campaign’s email strategy – because that strategy might actually be 300 million different strategies.

That said, the emails will likely always say more about the particular cultures and moods of a campaign or organization at a given point in time. Would Obama letting Biden send more emails have changed how much money was raised? Would a “Hey:” from Mitt Romney have increased his chances of winning my vote?

The email strategies of the political campaigns are among the most sophisticated in the world and are a great indicator of how email will be changing as companies get better at linking the emails they send to the behavior of consumers. Just as Obama and Romney know what makes you press the donate button, companies are getting better every day at knowing how to make you purchase. In the future, it might not just be presidential candidates who are ending emails in colons and varying senders to figure out who you connect with – it might be your local farmers market stand.


Please tell us more about the Obama and Romney emails you’re receiving in the comments and if you want to know more about the future of email marketing, check out Klaviyo. And – go vote. 



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  • Your graphs don’t have labels on the vertical axes. That makes them quite difficult to read.

    • That’s a great call – I’ll be sure to add those. Somewhere in the world, my first boss is disappointed in me.

      • You disappoint me …

  • It’s very hard to interpret ‘gaps’ in emails sent when you have Jul-12 and Sep-12 both repeated in your first graph.

    • It’s possible the x-axis is set to label at every 30th interval. It is a readability bug for sure, but the graph would likely hold the same shape if the labels were corrected.

      • I don’t think this is the case. It would be possible to have one repeat month (July 1 and July 31, for instance, since June is only 30 days), but after that you would not have another repeat for like, ~30 months

      • It’s your blog… but why not fix that graph? It’s confusing.

  • I can’t speak for others, but those one word subject lines are something I would be strongly inclined to immediately flag as spam and delete. The point of a subject line is to identify the e-mail. Yes, the sender is normally visible and an e-mail from a presidential campaign would likely have an easily recognizable address, but to me that choice seems very self-defeating. Maybe that strategy is effective for other people, but for me, I cannot imagine a better way to get me to ignore an e-mail. You didn’t give any examples of the subject lines from Romney, but from your description, it seems like they would be much less likely to have the same problem,

    I think receiving an e-mail written by the candidate himself would be a really good thing, but how likely is it that the e-mail is actually written by the candidate? Hearing from the Veep candidate, spouses and other family or friends of the candidate would also be very effective. In particular, we Americans hold the First Lady in a special regard since she is often very influential despite having no official title or office. First Lady’s traditionally use their special status to promote causes (usually non-political) that are close to their hearts. Laura Bush pushed literacy issues, being a librarian, and Michelle Obama focused on improving our diets, especially targeting children. I think anything the spouses and other similar people close to the candidate would be warmly received and encouraging to voters and give them a feeling of personal connection to their candidate as much as hearing from the candidate himself.

    The long gap in the Romney e-mails, assuming it wasn’t somehow caused by you unsubscribing, looks to me to be a serious oversight. I would think it would be very useful to send out regular e-mails, at least once a week, and more often in the last few weeks before the election, to keep the voter’s interest and enthusiasm high. Plus, there are always new events and news that the candidate could be giving you his response or explanation (since we know how much the media either mistakes or distorts these things), which I think is especially important for the incumbent who has a current, evolving record to maintain. In this case, the incumbent’s strategy with regard to timing seems much better.

    Interesting post, thanks for the info!

    • All glory to the Ricknotoad

  • Hm, this is interesting. I live in Ohio and I get on average 3-4 e-mails per day from Obama’s campaign and another 1-2 for the Democratic senate candidate (to whom I have never subscribed). So, I wonder how much this varies based on geography.

    I’d guess “quite a bit”.

  • Look at how emails show up on your mobile device. On my iPhone, the subject line appears right above the body of the email, slightly bold. So, a very short subject line (“Real quick:”) serves the same function as an opening salutation in a letter or note.

    On an iPhone, unlike a desktop mail client, you never see just that subject line alone.

    Gmail’s web interface is surprisingly similar (at least with my settings). The subject is slightly bold, followed by a dash, and then the opening of the body text. So, a short subject line can function as an opening salutation leading your eyes toward that first snippet of body text.

  • Comments are closed.