A look at how the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are running their email programs

Amir Salehzadeh
Aug 19 · 5 min read
Winning at the ballot box starts with winning digital.

If you’re anything like us at A+G, then your email inbox is probably overrun by presidential hopefuls asking you to donate for the one-millionth time and claiming that they “can’t build this movement without you.”

For years, email has reigned supreme. And 2020 candidates — presidential and otherwise — are once again leaning into email to build up their small-dollar grassroots supporter base. This supporter base is what led many Democrats to victory the last cycle. And ahead of 2020, campaigns are putting billions in digital ads that help grow their email lists.

In a crowded field, it doesn’t come as a surprise that candidates use their digital platform to establish a unique online voice and connect with online supporters. So we pored through all the emails from the countless presidential contenders to find a few standout tactics that these candidates used to engage their email list and expand their campaign reach.

Here are some of the most effective email practices from the top 5 digital spenders among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who are actively building their digital army and war chest:

Making emails personable and clickable

Through their emails, candidates and their teams relay their message and ask for donations in the most strategically authentic way they can. Many of these candidates realize that real people read their emails, which means their emails need to sound like they come from real people too.

One way is by using pseudo-personal subject lines to call your name and attention like “Amir, we’re counting on you to make a difference today” or even Kamala Harris’s “I hope I made you proud.” Directly addressing the reader in the subject cuts to the chase and piques interest which results in higher open rates and a strong bond between candidates and their supporters.

Candidates also rotate sending emails from different people on their teams; this includes the head campaign manager, the candidates themselves, and even their spouses. When these emails use a personal name as the sender, it adds to the ‘authenticity’ of the emails. When a person like a presidential contender or his/her loved one wants to talk to you, you might be more interested in seeing what he or she has to say as opposed to an organization.

Pete Buttigieg
From: Mike Schmuhl | “The first Democratic primary debate”

Elizabeth Warren
From: Bruce | “Would you like to have a drink with me, Elizabeth, and Bailey?”

Joe Biden
From: Jill Biden | “introducing myself”

And what makes these emails not only personable but also clickable is a sender photo. A photo in place of the gray silhouette seen in photo-less emails offers a more polished look — an aesthetic that presidential candidates may be interested in adopting.

Elizabeth Warren’s emails sport her “W” logo while Kamala Harris’s face is pictured in her emails.

Direct asks and statements in subject lines

Bernie Sanders isn’t just known for his left-wing positions; he’s also known for his long email subject lines. Though his subject lines take up the whole screen of a smartphone, they are clear and waste no time in getting straight-to-the-point.

Long subject lines aren’t only a way to escape the Promotions folder in Gmail; they’re also found to have a 25% higher average response rate than short subject lines, which makes them an effective strategy for candidates to optimize their email engagement.

Take Bernie Sanders, for example, who sent an email with the following subject line:

“I am writing to you today to ask you to please make a $3 contribution before our midnight fundraising deadline we’ve set for our campaign. This is important. Here’s why:”

Balancing fundraising emails with other types

Too many fundraising emails may come off as pandering and turn away potential voters — so it’s important for candidates to diversify their email content. A recent NYT article calculated the number of fundraising emails 2020 Democrats sent in contrast to other types of emails over a period of six weeks, which showed how well certain candidates were using their email lists creatively.

Source: The New York Times | Not all candidates included

Candidates also utilize current events and breaking headlines to speak on important issues through their emails — all without a “Donate” button.

In one example, Pete Buttigieg momentarily stepped off the campaign trail to focus on a recent case of police brutality in his mayoral district. In his emails, he spoke strictly about uplifting the South Bend community and speaking on the racial inequalities the incident brought forward — this response invokes a sense of trust in Buttigieg’s priorities to his constituents as mayor and as a possible future president.

Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and other candidates raised funds for abortion providers in Alabama using their email lists after the state passed a draconian anti-choice law. Other candidates sent non-fundraising emails to warn of ongoing ICE raids. These type of broader community organizing reinforces issue positions and builds a political image beyond fundraising asks.

These candidates showcase through their emails that not only are they appropriately responsive to issues that matter to potential voters but also aware that their supporters aren’t just means of financing their campaigns. Deploying email lists to speak on certain issues or engage community organizing can be an effective tool in a winning political campaign.

Ultimately, now — more than ever — a winning campaign requires a formidable digital army and small-dollar donations made online. In order to stand out from the crowd, many Democratic candidates are using their social platforms and emails to craft a unique image, engage potential voters, and build a grassroots movement. And they’re doing so by making authentic and individualized appeals.

Whoever employs outside-the-box thinking across their digital efforts and does so without losing touch with their authentic voice, is well on their way to victory.

Find this article useful? At A+G Digital, we help Democratic candidates and progressive organizations run cutting-edge digital programs. Need help crafting your marketing campaign or want to chat? Get in touch at amir@agdigital.us.

A+G: Digital Lab for Campaigns

Helping progressive causes, candidates, and organizations run the most efficient and effective digital campaigns possible.

Amir Salehzadeh

Written by

Digital strategist. Politico. Iranian-American.

A+G: Digital Lab for Campaigns

Helping progressive causes, candidates, and organizations run the most efficient and effective digital campaigns possible.

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