Journalism in the Public Interest

Explore Hundreds of Campaign Emails in the Message Machine

Today we’re opening up the political campaign emails we have collected from our readers.


"Firms," an Obama campaign ad that started running this week, focused on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.

We’ve been collecting campaign emails for the last few months for a project we call the Message Machine. If you’ve followed the project you may already know that campaigns have been using increasingly sophisticated strategies to target emails they send out, often sending variations of each message to different people based on their demographics and past behavior. We’ve been asking readers who get emails from the campaign to send them to us. More than 500 readers have sent in more than 10,000 emails since we first launched, with subjects like “Let’s win the damn election” and “Obamacare hurts job creators.”

Today we’re giving everybody access to that trove of messages.

What We’ve Found

So far we have found that the campaigns have been sending on average two variations of each email, but we’ve seen as many as nine variations of a single email. Most often the variations are small, and based on whether (and how much) the recipient has donated in the past. But sometimes the variations are more interesting.

For example, last week the Obama campaign increased attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure as the CEO of Bain Capital. An email the campaign sent to supporters last Thursday, outlined five issues the campaign said Romney was hiding about Bain and his tax returns.

There were actually at least two variations of this email. The email that was sent to the majority of people in ProPublica’s sample simply stated five simple arguments against Romney — for example, “Mitt Romney refuses to release multiple years of taxes, ignoring decades of precedent.”

But there was also a much longer variation of that email, sent to a smaller group of people in ProPublica’s sample, which lingered longer on the subject, laying out a series of lengthy, probing questions and declaring that the tax returns were important because “presidents make important decisions for this country, and Americans ought to know the motivations behind those decisions.” The alternate message pulls in details including that Romney’s father released his returns during his bid for the Oval Office, and attacks Mitt Romney’s “fundraising ‘bundlers’,” suggesting that those bundlers might get special consideration in a Romney White House.

This isn’t the first time Obama has attacked Romney’s past in an email. An email sent on June 22 highlighted a Washington Post article about Romney’s history with Bain. ProPublica has seen two variations of that email as well. Both variations start with the Post’s article, then diverge significantly.

The first focuses on President Obama’s plan for creating jobs, trumpeting an Obama “jobs plan that could put up to a million people back to work.” But in the second variation, Obama’s plan disappears, and in its place is an attack on Romney, saying his plan sends “jobs outside our borders,” and later notes, “there’s a word for people who say one thing and do the opposite.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the campaigns target their core supporters differently than less committed recipients. On July 9, the Romney campaign sent two variations of an email, based on whether or not the recipient had joined a Romney campaign social network called “MyMitt.” Members of MyMitt received an email about “President Obama’s expected billion-dollar reelection campaign,” and were asked to help raise money from their friends and family. Those who weren’t MyMitt members received an email promoting MyMitt, promising recipients they’d be able to “find out about campaign events in your area, sign up to volunteer, make calls from home to get out the vote, fundraise online, and so much more” if they created an account on the network.

Neither campaign responded to requests for comment.

What’s at Stake

According to Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor at Yale who studies the effects of campaign targeting, the data backing these email blasts is extensive. Campaigns have close to 1,000 pieces of information about every voter in the country.

“They know each voter’s name, address, basic demographics, vote history, and whatever other data they can scrape from voter registration files,” and that the better funded campaigns “also have predictions about voters’ consumer habits.” But Hersh notes that targeting is a high-wire act, and guessing wrong can hurt.

“Campaigns mistarget all the time,” Hersh said. “When voters are mistargeted, they might see the campaign as pandering to a group they don’t belong to. They might think the candidate has different values from themselves.”

But the campaigns have been taking that risk. They have been investing heavy in the sophisticated data analysis discipline known as “data science.” Romney’s campaign has recently beefed up its online operations and targeting capabilities, and the Obama campaign has gathered a large team of data scientists who are mining the campaign's voter database.

Message Machine is powered by curious readers who want to understand how modern campaign messages are targeted. If that describes you, and you receive political emails from a campaign, please forward them to Once you send your first email we’ll email you back with a link to set up your account and as we get more emails we’ll be able to show you how campaigns are targeting you.

The more I think about it, the more disturbing it becomes how Presidential campaigns have devolved into little more than propaganda wars.  Rather than having values and convincing people to share those values, both sides would rather “target” a “message” that does little more than highlight the weaknesses of “the” opponent.

It’s no wonder nothing gets done in Washington.  Propaganda, last I checked, is not a tool of democratic process.  Presumably, anybody engaging in such tactics does not share your values, no matter how well you’ve been targeted.

If you’re against the Citizens United decision, you should be voting against anybody whose campaign engages in propaganda, plain and simple.  Better to not vote at all than support anybody who’s trying to win through spending.

If you’re against government spending, you should be voting against anybody willing to spend this kind of money on propaganda.  Only a fool would believe that success would lead to changing tactics.

Unfortunately, propaganda HAS ALWAYS been the most important tool used by politicians to gather votes, whether we’re discussing elections held in the Roman Empire, Russia or the USA! E-mails are only another vehicle being added to the list of ways that prospective candidates can access votes. If you don’t want to read it, press delete!

It’s easier than shutting a door in the face of a door to door campaigner. There is no easy way to know whether what we learn about a particular candidate is true or not, unless they have an extensive record in the public eye which can be examined by many media sources.

American people should use their common sense come November. Don’t believe any of the campaign ads from Dem. or Rep. Its meaningless. If you own a company struggling with sales [ jobs ] and has not shown any improvement in 4 years, are you going to continue with a new 4 year contract for your sales mgr, or maybe look for someone else ? Its jobs that that will fuel the well being of the American family, every thing else will fall in place. If you understand that you will try some one new, if you’re more interested in entitlements
and what you could get out of government please stay home in November then move to Europe.

Walter D. Shutter,Jr.

July 17, 2012, 3:54 p.m.

Damn! I haven’t received ANY e-mails from either the Democrat or Republican campaigns.  I feel slighted.  What am I, chopped liver?

That old saw of the “job creators” won’t wash anymore.  The spending power of the beleagured Middle Class is the engine that creates jobs.  Anybody with any sense knows that jobs are created by consumers having money to buy products.  The more products requested, the more workers businesses hire to produce/sell them.  The so called “job creators” have plenty of money put by but are sitting on it in their high interest accounts and hedge funds… but they aren’t hiring because they have no one to buy their products.  We need government to step in and start and infrastructure program and other work programs that put money in the hands of the American people who will then spend that money in the economy and employers will have to hire more people to produce/sell the products.

I believe ads today are even more focused on hitting emotional triggers rather than rational data since critical thinking skills and having a broad understanding of the issues and understanding the consequences of decisions to be made (in what remains of our voting population) seem to be in escalating decline. Using technology to more accurately target voter’s emotional preferences would be the obvious strategy to use in attempting to successfully manipulate our opinions enough to act favorably to the message.

We already know any illusions of privacy we have are unfounded; and now, thanks to my indespensible smart phone, my location, destinations, and probably my mileage are included in any database that wants them. It’s a disturbing by-product of growing technology.

I envision some time in the future that enough harm will be caused to create real victims resulting from this surveillance, and court cases centering on invasion of privacy will be brought.  So I send money to the ACLU.  Their continued existence depends on funding provided solely by those of us who want to preserve individual rights.

I am personally tired of hearing that we need less regulation. GWB was the great deregulator, well hows that working for us in the middle class?? simple..its not. And certain segments of our population want to double down on this failed policy! I personally believe that the reason that Romney will not release his taxes, is because he paid NO taxes and he doesnt want the people to know he made a boat load of money free and clear, while the middle class is struggeling to feed their families and have to pay taxes. Citizens United will eventually kill America… We are a country for the Rich and by the Corporations and that is our fault! the attitude of I dont want to get involved MUST be discouraged, or it is over! It is EVERY citizens responsibility to get involved, the key word here is RESPONSIBILITY!

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

July 17, 2012, 5:12 p.m.

Donna Crane: 

Please tell me how I can get into one of those “high-interest” accounts where the “job creators” have been squirling their money away. I ask because the banks and money market funds aren’t paying squat.  Thanks.

This is ridiculous. I’m starting to trust Pro Publica’s objectivity less and less. On the face of this, it appears to be an impartial article, when really in fact, I believe, it’s an attempt to smear Mitt Romney, yet again—to diminish his credibility. 


Obama can’t run on his absymal record, so they have to attack, attack, attack and it sickens me that the media and websites that are “impartial” are helping him to do that.  I vote on the past records of politicians as it’s usually an indicator of future behavior.  ROMNEY FOR PRESIDENT!  It’s very clear who the true leader between the two is, Romney.  And Obama knows it, which is why he and his thugs are attacking a good man.  He was my governor and I’m very familiar with how he operates—on the up and up, unlike Chicago thug politics Obama.


You and all the other “birthers” are so easily schmoozed by the Repugs that you suck up their hate gas like its oxygen! Vote for Romney. It’s your right. But, if he does get elected, (which I hope NEVER happens), this country will be sliced and diced by the ubber rich who are the only group of people who benefit from an economic depression. They get to buy every asset for nothing and hire cheap labor to run their monopolies. Wake up woman!

By the way, IF OBAMA"S BIRTH CERTIFICATE WAS REALLY BOGUS, do you think for one minute that the hate mongering Christian fundies would not have done everything in their power to get him out of office? If you think that people like yourself sound convincing just because you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, think again. You only manage to convince the rest of us that the Republican Party has successfully reached out to a base of fringe lunatic suppoerters!

As far as your comment about you voting on a politicians past record, why not look at Romney’s record in Massachussetts. He passed the same health care initiative for his state that the president signed into law for the rest of America. If the Republican Party was not a party of obstructionists, we would have single payer health care ( like Medicare) for ALL Americans,cutting out the corporate leeches that deny us adequate health care to increase their profits! Mr. Romney NOW states he is AGAINST the very health care that he promoted as a step towards universal coverage. Talk about HIS RECORD Lauren! It speaks louder than all the misinformation spewing from your confused mind.

charlie: Thanks! and DITTO! (though we both really know short circuited synapses running in a closed loop are incapable of processing rational/truthful information, usually misinterpreting the intent and content of the information, and quick to counter-attack by repeating the same old debunked lies in order to defend emotion-based ideology against perceived threats - ie: no critical thinking skills)

At first I didn’t get ProPublica’s singular focus on TeamObama e-mail. It’s because I wasn’t paying attention, but rather lumped it in with the usual pull-the-center-of-debate-toward-our-wing-of-the-Party propaganda we expect from left-of-center-left advocacy groups like ProPublica. Criticize the mainstream until campaign time, call on the troops to close ranks during election, then back to pulling to the left.

After a few repeated “surprise, Surprise, SURPRISE” stories that didn’t advance the story one iota—I mean, anyone in the e-mail marketing biz knows about split-variant testing and market segmentation—I finally got it. Focusing on Obama’s messages lets ProPublica repeat Obama’s messages. It’s free advertising, with a topping of “we’re real journalists” on top.

Nice job, ProPublica. I gotta find a way to use this technique in my next Viagra campaign.

Charlie, I disagree with your assessment above.  Propaganda is only what you’ve seen in your lifetime.  There used to be public debates (with audience interaction, rather than scripts) and discussions with candidates dealing with real issues.  Only the worst candidates campaigned on “at least I’m not HIM.”

In an age when the audience could easily participate in such things and so many connection routes are open, the trend could easily be reversed, if we stopped rewarding the same behavior that, y’know, tyrants use.

And yes, you could delete them and forget about them (or not sign up for the list, like I do), but you’re missing the point.  Why would any American knowingly throw his support behind a cretin who’s willing to win purely by spending a ton of money (possibly foreign, certainly corporate) to try to trick you?  Do you believe that the trickery ends immediately after inauguration?

If the people stood up for their values, Citizens United wouldn’t make even a tiny difference.  Every advertisement should be examined and dissected, rather than blowing it off with “just delete it if you disagree with it.”

As for Obama’s record, my thinking is that EVERY candidate should be obligated to prove his eligibility to run, and I don’t know why there isn’t a law requiring it.  There shouldn’t have been any doubt that Obama or McCain (who was born on a military base in Panama, remember, at a time when military bases were not explicitly considered American territory) could hold the position.  But rather than confront the issue, they both blew the idea off as the unworthy masses daring to question their divine right to lead.

So go easy on anybody you want to “-er” to demean them.  Disagree with them, but name-calling, insults, and an unwillingness to entertain questions at all doesn’t make Lauren, in this case, look like the least smart person in the room.

As for Romney’s record, you’re right.  He ran a company who’s entire premise was decimation.  However, we could also look at Obama’s record, where even things he has direct control over (the DoJ, the internment camps, signing the NDAA), he’s been twice the Bush that Bush was.

That brings us back to my original thesis:  Voting for any of these “geniuses” is a guarantee that none of us wins.


Mea culpa. I stand corrected. I should not have responded to Lauren the way I did.  I certainly do not think President Obama is the best person to lead, but the Democrats at this point will do the least amount of harm to our already compromised nation. I am not a registered Democrat, but I will vote for Obama rather than throw away my vote on another candidate ensuring a win for Romney. The Republican Party has devolved into a collection of right wing ideologues who think we should all be lead by Christian fundamentalists to heaven’s (or hell’s) gates. America is or already has become a land of bitter divide between the very wealthy and the not-so-middle working poor. The main thrust of political discourse is directed towards social issues rather than government responsibilities. It is so much easier for those in power to control people by creating scapegoats, blaming one group or another for our perceived ills and invoking the power of their Christian god to galvanize the hate. It’s hard to debate with a group of people who believe they have been given some kind of divine power.

I won’t retract my opinion that Lauren found what he/she was seeking to find in the article. The words chosen for upper case emphasis screams at us that ideology dominated over an objective reading for content (in the article, I actually read about how we are all increasingly becoming political database fodder, not a cleverly disguised pitch for Obama). I like ProPublica because their position seems to be the gathering/dissemination of information without proselytizing. The truth doesn’t have a liberal bias, but it is often perceived as such by people trying to protect the status quo because of their economic interests.

Since I don’t hold allegiance to any party or have complete faith any candidate, I just try to read, listen, learn, and expand my sense of the whole through analyzing the myriad pieces offered to us - filter everything through very simple core values which aren’t subject to change, and then try to make rational voting choices based on the stated efforts and track records of those who choose to run for office. They are all, of course, increasingly forced to promise instant fixes due to our impatient, short term thinking, and ill-informed voting populace. All to work “in our behalf” in a broken, polarized, and pretty corrupt system

Carolyn, the bias in comments is actually more amusing than what you suggest.  If you go back to the previous articles in the series, which focused mainly on the Obama e-mails, there were many…let’s say “zealous” pro-Obama comments that his campaign should be allowed to do what it likes, and how dare ProPublica sink to partisanism of analyzing and presenting facts to determine strategy.

Now on the flip side, we basically have the same thing.  Now that Romney is in their sights, ProPublica is clearly biased against him.

Apparently, facts are strongly biased, when they’re not complimentary to the guy you unquestioningly support…

Charlie, I don’t want to get into too much of an argument, because I don’t have a side, but changing a handful of keywords, any unpleasant description of the Republican Party can be applied identically to the Democrats of today.  Arguably, the keywords don’t even need to change all that much.  Both parties have consistently declared that rich people and companies (not to mention war) should come before everybody else, with every move to help we peons coming at a great cost to either the economy or our freedom.

That said, I think Obama’s reelection is a foregone conclusion.  He’s the favoritte of the media, first of all.  A few minutes watching Fox shows they support him, no matter what they claim; there’s a lot of material they could use to make him look bad, but they don’t bother.  Second, Romney isn’t a serious candidate, and I’m shocked he has any support at all.  I mean, he’s a Republican who passed an ObamaCare-like law in Massachusetts and spent years as a student in France?  The only way he could be less electable would be if he drove a Prius around the country.

As I said, though, I’m not happy about the prospect of either of them winning.  Neither has an interest in bringing our soldiers home, stabilizing the economy, putting an end to the mass surveillance and intimidation tactics, or anything else that’s put this country in such a bad situation.  The Department of Justice will continue dragging the country through the mud.  The SEC will continue to be the Long Arm of the Banks.  We’ll still prosecute more whistleblowers than we protect.  We’ll continue to confuse health care with health insurance.

If Romney is elected, you won’t notice the difference.

(And no, I’m not going to vote for Ron Paul, either.  The man would make a great advisor to a sitting President, as someone who’s good at seeing problems, but his “solutions” would send is into a deflationary spiral that’d crash the economy.)

John: You are correct! I also recall skimming over pro-Obama (and pro Romney) postings reacting to perceived slights rather than focusing on the article’s intent/content and ignored them. I would have ignored Lauren’s also if it weren’t for the accuracies imbedded in Charlie’s post triggering my frustration with poorly informed but vehement posters who have actually taken the trouble to wander into ProPublica to “read” published articles. Thankfully, most of those who post here seem well informed, ask questions when they’re not, and many have provided me with knowledge and insights I wouldn’t otherwise possess - yours among them. Also, most of us realize when we hit the post button that efforts to “change hearts and minds” aren’t successful when our keyboards are used like assault rifles.

Core values drive me into my wish list for government: Pluralism (tolerance/inclusion), and quality/equality in education emphasizing the development of the critical thinking skills/long term strategies/flexibility we need to conduct a rational existence in and with disparate communities on a warming, shrinking globe. A nice thought but not bloody likely - so we doggedly continue trying to build enough voter awareness so we can fix what’s so broken in our own current corrupt tribalized “system”.

Your statement regarding Paul is, in my view, spot on! Our messed up global economy “corrected” with Paul’s US solutions would result in a world wide economic contraction/collapse which any student of history knows would quickly be followed by war. Our collective inability to understand cause and the lag time of effect is stunning! And turning this disintegrating freighter around is a daunting prospect even if all voters were informed and personally invested in its survival.

That you can comment on Fox’s point of view shows due diligence. I can’t even watch any of the other “news” stations for any extended period of time - just try to sample enough to figure out if any of them are going to shift into delivering actual content rather than the current dumbed down stuff laced with repetitive ideology, conjecture, self-promotion, and celebrity gossip. Print media and BBC seem to be the only means I’ve found to stay abreast and not want to throw objects at the source.

PS: Your great crack about Romney. I drive an old Prius. Made the plunge when everyone warned I was making a horrendous mistake gambling on an expensive “experiment”. It still runs great, but now I want a Volt. :)

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

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