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The Story Behind Those Obama Campaign Email Subject Lines

Why do fundraising deadlines matter? The answer is less than inspiring.

For those who donated to the president's 2008 campaign, it's been hard not to notice the uptick in email correspondence from the re-election campaign over the past several days, especially given the conversational subject lines like "If I Don't Call You" and "Take him up on it." In response to the spate of fundraising appeals, thousands took to Twitter on Friday night to offer their own #ObamaCampaignEmailSubjectLines:

The hashtag quickly became a Trending Topic, and the Obama campaign tweeted a good-natured response:

Why did campaigns flood inboxes across America all week? Because Sept. 30 marked the end of the third quarter, and candidates are required to file quarterly campaign finance details to the Federal Elections Commission. Campaigns do their best to convince you that these deadlines are “important,” “critical,” “crucial,” and “vital”—yet they rarely explain why. And that’s because the answer is the opposite of inspiring.

The truth about why campaigns wanted you to DONATE NOW has everything to do with the ubiquitous yet little-examined notion of momentum. A candidate’s momentum isn’t determined by statistics showing growing progress in polling or fundraising numbers over time. Instead, momentum happens when a handful of media elites declare—in the wake of “defining moments”—who is moving forward and who is moving backward in the race. Others in the media then follow along, and a narrative is born that can sink or catapult a campaign.

Quarterly fundraising deadlines are among these moments. The goal of a campaign is to convince the media that its quarterly totals—or its rival’s—are surprising. If its own numbers are weak, the campaign will focus all of its energy on overhyping its rival’s totals, in hopes that the media will declare (in the usual language) the rival’s results “weaker than expected” or better yet, “disappointing.” If the numbers are strong, a campaign will underplay its own totals, in hopes that the media will declare the actual results “stronger than expected,” or better yet, “stunning.” Pundits are well aware of this tradition and call it the “expectations game.” Yet they play right into it time and again.

For lesser-known and underdog candidates, surprising quarterly totals are an opportunity to attain “viability” in the eyes of the media. In the second quarter of 2003, Howard Dean shocked the political establishment by raising over $6 million, and quickly vaulted from obscurity to front-runner status in the Democratic primary. Indeed, the title of Adam Nagourney’s New York Times story on June 30, 2003, was “Fund-Raising Puts Dean in Top Tier of Contenders.”

And it was Obama’s $32.5 million second quarter haul in 2007—at that point, the most ever raised in a pre-election year—that finally caused pundits to reconsider Hillary Clinton’s much-vaunted “inevitability.”

Right now, all eyes are on the totals of front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. The Romney campaign is doing all it can to downplay its own fundraising numbers and inflate expectations for Perry. If Perry beats Romney in this round of the so-called “Invisible Primary,” he’ll be crowned with momentum. If he loses to Romney, pundits will blame his latest debate performance, harp on his “lost mojo,” and continue to feverishly speculate about Chris Christie or some other candidate who can pose a (viable!) threat to Romney.

Observers in the media will also be looking for weak totals from the dark horse candidates. If Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman post disappointing numbers, as expected, the media will tout their downward momentum, question their viability, and speculate on whether or not they will drop out. Sooner or later, they most likely will. One of the more entertaining elements of campaign season is the barely concealed schadenfreude displayed by pundits when a lesser candidate bows out. It’s also one of the sadder elements of campaign season, because some genuinely interesting candidates get shunted off the stage before they’re given a chance to fully explain their unconventional ideas to the American people.

And of course, all eyes are on Obama’s totals as a barometer of his grassroots strength. If Obama raises less than the $55 million the media expects him to, based on scuttlebutt in big donor circles, we can expect a blitz of articles and news segments about his “disenchanted base.” If he raises more than that, look out for headlines about Obama’s “small-dollar juggernaut” that “shows no signs of slowing down.”

As it turns out, those emails you’ve been getting about the “important,” “critical,” “crucial,” and “vital” deadline weren’t hyperbole. Most donors wait to give until shortly before the primary or general election, figuring their money can make a difference down the stretch. Yet, there’s a good case to be made that donating before the Q3 deadline and helping a candidate attain “The Big ‘Mo” gives a donor a lot more bang for his buck.

It makes sense that campaigns don’t spell out why these deadlines matter so much. After all, the whole premise of momentum is extremely cynical: that most people are too ignorant or cowardly to make up their own minds, and they support the media-anointed front-runner because they want to end up on the winning team.

You shouldn’t hold your breath for an #ObamaCampaignEmailSubjectLine that reads: “Please donate before the deadline so the media will say we have momentum and cause everyone else to believe it.” But when you get an email that tells you that a seemingly meaningless deadline actually matters, you should believe it; it does.

Photo via Flickr user The White House.

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