As the November elections approach, the wave of emails from political campaigns swells. But unlike social media, where everything is public, your email inbox is a private and personal space. So how do campaigns tempt you to open and read their correspondence, and how much contact is too much? We explore the testing and targeting behind these fundraising and base-stirring missives.


  • Nicco Mele Author, "The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath"; Lecturer, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government

Who’s Sharing Your Email Address? Here’s How To Find Out And Stop The Clutter

Are you getting emails from candidates to whom you’ve never given your email address? If you use Gmail, there’s a way to figure out where they got it.

1. Sign up with a campaign using a modified version of your Gmail address by adding a “+” after your username and then the candidate’s name: For instance, if you signed up to receive emails from the Obama campaign, you would give them the email address “username”. (Similarly, if you’re looking to track what company sold its mailing list, enter “”.)

2. Gmail only reads the information that comes before the “+” sign when recognizing and delivering mail. Everything that comes after the “+” is ignored, so the email will still land in your regular inbox (“”).

3. Now here’s the tell: The extended email address (“”) will appear in the “To:” field. You can search for that modified email and see all messages sent to your extended address.

4. If you get a message from a campaign that you didn’t sign up with and know nothing about, check the “To:” field. If it’s addressed to your extended email (“”), then it’s likely the candidate’s campaign shared or sold your address.

5. To get rid of the messages, set up a new filter in Gmail settings to automatically delete or archive all messages sent to that extended address.


  • 12:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University, in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.

  • 12:06:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, graphic novels, their relationship to education and diversity. We'll talk with author Gene Luen Yang. But first, as the November elections approach, political campaigns are sending out a flood of fundraising emails, some ask for $5, some for $500. Maybe you oblige, maybe you don't because you're so sick of these electronic leaflets that you've stopped opening them. Over the last two decades, email has become a valuable tool in the campaign war chest. So valuable that there's a science to crafting a subject line and message that get results.

  • 12:07:31

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIEvery time a quarterly financial reporting deadline approaches, the emails surge. Yesterday was the last deadline before the November election. So that explains the heavy volume of emails this week. But how many is too many? Can an email deluge backfire? Joining me to examine the use or many overuse of political campaign email is Nicco Mele. He is author of "The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath." He's a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He joins us by telephone. Nicco Mele, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:10

    MR. NICCO MELEIt's my pleasure, Kojo.

  • 12:08:11

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation with your comments or questions by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to Are emails from political campaigns flooding your inbox? Do you read them? You can also shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. Nicco, sometimes we get emails from candidates we've never had any contact with. Where do campaigns get the email addresses they use? Do they sell them to one another? Do they trade them?

  • 12:08:40

    MELEWell, selling and buying email lists and even trading lists is generally frowned upon. It can increase the likelihood of spam complaints and ultimately get you blocked. For the most part, if you're getting an email and you don't think that you -- you don't know who it's from and you didn't sign up for them, they may be sending it to a list on your behalf. For example, if you signed up for Barack Obama's email list in '08 or 2012, in one of those campaigns, you might get an email from one of the Senate candidates this cycle who Obama will either -- the Obama team will either send an email to their list on behalf of the Senate candidate or invite the Senate candidate to send a message to them.

  • 12:09:31

    NNAMDIYesterday was the deadline for candidates to file their financial information for the third quarter of the year. It's the last deadline before the November election. How do those filing deadlines affect the timing of email from campaigns?

  • 12:09:45

    MELEThe filing deadlines are a really important way of creating a lot of urgency for donors. You know, if you're on any even vaguely political list at all, Republican or Democrat, you probably got a ton of emails last night. It's the last big filing deadline. It's a campaign finance disclosure deadline. In some sense, it's an artificial deadline, in that the campaigns can continue to raise money for the next month. But it's also a very real deadline.

  • 12:10:18

    MELEThis is the last major, you know, this is the last campaign finance filing deadline prior to the election. This is it. And the amount of money campaigns have going into that last month of campaigning is a really important measure, creates all kinds of stories. In a few days we'll start to see stories about which candidates raised more in Q3. And that can be a sign of a candidate's relative health. If they didn't raise as much to meet expectations, it might be perceived as being weak, or vice versa, strong. And that can kind of compound itself.

  • 12:10:55

    NNAMDIAnd do you want to save money for that filing, if you will, in order to demonstrate that your candidate or you as a candidate have momentum?

  • 12:11:03

    MELEAbsolutely. Absolutely. You know, it's cash-flow management. You want to put of paying as many bills as you can so it looks like you have as much -- and you want to raise as much money as you can, so it looks like at that deadline that -- like you're very strong, that you have a ton of cash.

  • 12:11:17

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Nicco Mele. He is author of "The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath." He's a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to Do you get emails from political campaigns that you have no connection to? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow or go to our website,, join the conversation there.

  • 12:11:47

    NNAMDITalk about how campaigns and consultants test email subject lines to see which ones are the most successful. The first step, apparently, to get people to notice and open the email. What works best?

  • 12:12:01

    MELEWell, it's actually really hard to figure out what works best. Sometimes you're really surprised. And so campaigns have developed a methodology called A/B testing. This methodology existed long before the internet came along, in lots of direct marketing and direct mail. But the internet makes it a lot cheaper and easier to do. And what A/B testing is, is you'll take two groups from your email. You'll randomly select a group -- two small groups from your email list.

  • 12:12:33

    MELEIf you have an email list of 100,000 supporters, you might take two groups of 1,000 each. And you'd send them both the same message, but with a different subject line. And you would see which one got a higher open rate. And in a very sophisticated email program, like in a national campaign, in a presidential campaign or one of the campaign committees, you might A/B test five, six, maybe even a dozen subject lines to figure out what's going to have the highest response rate, what's going to increase the likelihood people will open the email.

  • 12:13:04

    MELEAnd it's very hard to say what will work. A real surprise in 2012, when Obama -- in Obama's 2012 presidential campaign the best performing email subject line was famously, "Hey," just H-E-Y. It does not feel like a very presidential way of talking, but it is a very informal and intimate way of talking. And in some ways that's how we think of our inboxes, is personal, intimate space.1

  • 12:13:33

    NNAMDIIt's how you get someone's attention, hey.

  • 12:13:35


  • 12:13:36

    NNAMDIWell, having gotten the reader to open the email, what's the trick to getting them to do what you're asking, whether it's donating $5 or $500?

  • 12:13:47

    MELEWell, the trick is to tell a great story, to write a great email, to really be compelling about what your needs are and why it's important and urgent to have someone take action right now. I think, you know, it's not any more complicated than that, but that's actually -- can be pretty hard to do. The, you know, I think it's important to note that even though people get a lot of email -- and anyone who got a ton of email last night might be a little annoyed this morning -- by and large this really works. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that it is a crucial part of keeping the Democrats competitive against the Republicans in this election cycle.

  • 12:14:32

    NNAMDIOn now to the telephones. Here is Jean, in Germantown, Md. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:40

    JEANHello, Kojo. I love your show.

  • 12:14:41

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:14:42

    JEANI'm from Scotland, but I've lived her in Germantown, Md., for 17 years. I'm not a citizen, although I have a green card. I'm here legally so don't worry about that. I want to know why my email box is being flooded with all these -- from Joe Biden, maybe some Obama -- Barack Obama, to name but a few, and they're all calling me by my first name. "Hey, Jean," like they know me. They know nothing about me. I'm not even a citizen. I'm not entitled to vote. And yet, my email box is flooded. Where are they getting my information from?

  • 12:15:19

    NNAMDII don't know where they're getting your information from, Jean. But the fact that you are not entitled to vote, does not mean you are not -- you're also not entitled to give money. So that part of the question I can answer. The other part Nicco might be able to answer.

  • 12:15:34


  • 12:15:34

    MELEWell, in all likelihood, at some point in the last few years you signed up for something related to the campaign. You might not even remember it. Maybe a friend invited you to a house party when Obama was running for president.

  • 12:15:47

    JEANNope. No. I have…

  • 12:15:49


  • 12:15:49

    JEAN…absolutely none of that going on.

  • 12:15:51

    NNAMDINone of that?

  • 12:15:53


  • 12:15:54

    MELEIt would be really unusual for them to harvest your email from any -- it would be unusual and in some cases downright improper for them to harvest your email from any unintended source. You know most of the major email lists abide pretty strictly by what they call the opt-in rule, which is they don't email you unless you have opted in, unless you've asked to be on a list.

  • 12:16:21


  • 12:16:21

    MELEWhat gets confusing is you might have asked to be on a list about something, and then over time that list gets converted into political fundraising. And you never expected to that, you weren't paying attention, you weren't prepared for it, maybe it's a list you signed up six years ago and forgot about and now suddenly they're emailing you at the end of the quarter a whole bunch. It can be a surprise like that.

  • 12:16:44

    MELEThat's not to say that incidences of buying or otherwise acquiring email don't happen. They do happen. But that is not the norm. That's not the standard. And, frankly, that that tends to be really high-risk for campaigns. You know, for Democrats, small-dollar fundraising from email is giving them a substantial financial advantage this cycle. Or I shouldn't say advantage, but really getting to parity.

  • 12:17:10

    MELEThe National Journal just released a study showing that Democratic candidates for Congress are outraising Republicans by more than $100,000 per candidate, all in gifts of under $200. This is a crucial tool for the Democrats. And they wouldn't risk it by -- they wouldn't risk the spam complaints if they had acquired your email from some untoward action. That's why the opt-in is so important.

  • 12:17:40

    NNAMDIJean, have you complained about this? Have you attempted to respond to these emails to tell them to not send them to you anymore?

  • 12:17:45

    JEANI -- no. Because, you know, Kojo, I never open an email that I haven't -- that I don't know the person.

  • 12:17:51

    NNAMDIOh, so you just…

  • 12:17:52

    JEANI just delete them. I never open them. So you can't unsubscribe if you don't open them.

  • 12:17:57

    NNAMDII see, unless you open the email. I see that is your -- you were just wondering how you were getting them. We got another tweet from someone asking, "Does the Obama election team sell emails or share? Do they assume I am in favor?" Any selling of emails going on? Again, that would cause -- could cause a lot of problems, right, Nicco?

  • 12:18:17

    MELEYeah, I mean, the best practice is, like I said, not to sell, not to share, but, in fact, to really make use of it. Right. To use it to raise money for other candidates. You know, another thing I would note to all of your listeners, is that, you know, there's this simple trick if you use Gmail, that if you sign up -- if you have Gmail address, you know, If you do username plus Obama or plus, you know, insert candidate name here, you can then track who you signed up for a list and who's getting it.

  • 12:18:57

    MELEThe Gmail will ignore everything after the plus sign. And so if you put your user name in there and then a plus sign, everything after it will be ignored by Gmail. But it lets you track where it's coming from. It's actually a very useful way to track marketing, not just political marketing, but when you go to restaurants or you go to an event and they want your email and you're curious to see if they'll buy or sell -- they'll sell your email to anyone. You add that little plus sign and then the name of some identifier, you can then track how your email is being used.

  • 12:19:28

    NNAMDIAnd, Jean, that's something you might want to do. You can all find a full explanation for that at our website, You may want to do that yourself. We're talking with Nicco Mele. He is author of "The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath." He's a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. We're talking about the email deluge from political campaigns that you might be experiencing right now. Nicco, some say the tone of this year's emails is more pointed than in past elections. Have you observed that?

  • 12:19:59

    MELEWell, it certainly appears to be that way. We don't have a ton of quantitative data on it yet. We're collecting it and evaluating it. But the tone does look more urgent and more partisan. Dave Karp, a professor at George Washington University, has actually done some studies of email and cycles in the past, and looks at ways they encourage more partisan language, that the more partisan and dramatic an email is the more urgent it feels, the more likely you are to respond to it.

  • 12:20:33

    MELEAnd that does create some incentives for campaigns to really get worked up. Of course, I think that in many cases the -- what feels like hyperbolic language in the email, actually reflects how some of the really committed activists on the ground feel. They really feel like things are this urgent. And so there is this line between really being in touch with your base and communicating that you're on the same page as them.

  • 12:21:05

    MELEBut also, you know, there is a line that's overstepping it and creating a false sense of urgency that people are inclined to ignore. There is absolutely no doubt that control of the Senate is on the line this year with both parties. There's -- it is about as tight as it's been in a long, long time, in decades.

  • 12:21:24

    NNAMDIIf both parties are just as interested in controlling the Senate, why does it seem like Democrats and Democratic Party groups used fundraising emails more than Republican?

  • 12:21:35

    MELEWell, to date the Democrats have had -- have really -- the Democrats really have built a small-dollar donor base online, in a way the Republicans haven't. It's even -- it's more than 2 to 1, in terms of dollars. You're almost twice as likely to have a Democratic donor who's a small-dollar donor than a Republican donor. And that's unusual. For many years a lot of the Republican donor base was small-dollar and direct mail.

  • 12:22:08

    MELEBut really, we could say beginning with Move On in the late '90s, going to the Dean campaign where I worked, and then also to the Obama campaign, we've seen the rise of a fairly impressive, fairly aggressive small-dollar donor base in the Democratic Party.

  • 12:22:25

    NNAMDIHow much money do candidates raise through email requests? Is this a big portion of their campaign cash?

  • 12:22:31

    MELEYou know, it varies pretty widely. Certainly in any national campaign, in a presidential campaign, or in a Senate race that is nationalized, you will see a substantial portion of the money raised online -- as much as half or even more raised online. In other races it just varies widely. Across the board I think we're, you know, it is absolutely a part of every campaign's fundraising strategy. How -- is it 10 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent, varies based on the campaign and factors around it.

  • 12:23:12

    MELECertainly, if you're an incumbent, you're less likely to have an aggressive online fundraising program. If you're a Republican, you're less likely to have an aggressive online fundraising program. But it is across the board a standard part of every political campaign. And my general rule of thumb is the larger the campaign, the greater the volume of online fundraising.

  • 12:23:40

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Roberta, who writes, "I just unsubscribed from everything yesterday. I've had it." There's some concern, Nicco, that campaigns are overdoing it right now and turning voters off with a barrage of emails. Is there a tipping point? Are we likely to see a lot more Robertas?

  • 12:23:57

    MELEThat's a good question. We talk a lot about "burnout" of an email list. That an email lists' people who were engaged in the work, stop being engaged because of the volume of fundraising appeals. But I'll say this, I'll say that, one, to repeat, it's like a really essential part of the Democrats' fundraising this cycle. And they're doing it because it works, because it delivers dollars. And they're going to do it until it stops working.

  • 12:24:24

    MELEAnd, two, generally speaking, I think that it's okay to really aggressively fundraise from your list, if the rest of the time you're really providing value. So, you know, in that sense I think about, you know, and PR and a station like your station here, WAMU.

  • 12:24:45

    NNAMDIYes. Our fundraising drive is coming up soon.

  • 12:24:48

    MELEThat's right. You have times of the year when you do a very aggressive fundraising drive. But you do it because you're creating a lot of value in between those fundraising drives. And I think that the trick for campaigns is to really try and provide a lot of value to make people feel intimate and engaged in the work of the campaigns so that they'll forgive the volume of fundraising emails at different deadline moments like quarterly fundraising deadlines.

  • 12:25:14

    NNAMDIGot to take a break before we create some more value here. Nicco Mele is author of "The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath." He's a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Nicco, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:25:28

    MELEMy pleasure.

  • 12:25:29

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, graphic novels or comics, they're

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