Journalism in the Public Interest

Reverse-Engineering Obama’s Message Machine

How different are a campaign’s emails to different voters? President Obama’s re-election campaign tried at least six different messages sent on behalf of campaign deputy manager Julianna Smoot in an email blast last week.


President Obama's re-election campaign sent an email blast to supporters last week. While all of the messages were sent on behalf of Julianna Smoot, the campaign's deputy manager, they were subtly different. (Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

Last Thursday, President Obama's re-election campaign sent out an email blast to supporters. Former journalism professor Dan Sinker and his wife received their messages simultaneously as they sat next to each other on their couch in Chicago. Both emails were from Julianna Smoot, the deputy manager of Obama's campaign, and both asked for donations.

Sinker's email asked him to help the campaign try out a "new, super-easy" online donation tool by giving $20.

The email to his wife, by contrast, described a 61-year-old mother and grandmother whose donation had just won her a seat at a dinner with the president. It asked for $25.

Sinker and his wife weren't the only ones to receive similar but subtly different emails from the Obama campaign. Responding to a call on Twitter from Sinker (and another from us), 190 people from 31 states and Washington, D.C., sent us the messages they received.

A look at those emails shows the campaign sent out at least six versions of the fundraising appeal.

The reasons for the differences remain unclear. (The campaign hasn't responded to our requests for comment.) The campaign could be testing to see which phrasing gets the best response. The messages also may be tailored to individual voters based on the campaign's extensive database of personal information.

Either way, it's a glimpse into the detailed data work that rarely gets attention but is increasingly central to campaigns.

Take a look for yourself. We have posted an interactive graphic allowing you to track the differences among the emails.

The changes are minor but may highlight the ways that political campaigns are increasingly tailoring their messages — and their funding requests — using personal information about potential voters. While appeals to specific voters have long been a part of campaigns, politicians now have the ability to "microtarget" voters based on everything from their donation histories to what religions they list on Facebook.

Voters have little way of knowing how much a campaign knows about them, how the messages they're receiving differ from the messages that other voters are sent, or what these differences might reveal about a campaign's priorities.

Sasha Issenberg, a journalist who has done extensive reporting on campaigns' new uses of data and analytics, said the Obama campaign is leading the way. It takes a rigorous approach to testing the effectiveness of different messages, tracking results based not only on the message content but also the name given as the sender of the email, the subject line, the format, even the date and time of day the messages are sent.

"People who don't get an email on Thursday might be because they didn't respond to emails on Thursdays in the past," said Issenberg, who is writing a book about campaign data use. "Every element of an email is a potential variable."

While the Obama campaign is usually perceived as the most data-savvy, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry's campaigns also have used microtargeting tactics to reach specific voters through email, Facebook and online ads and video.

"We're all seeing different campaigns play out," Sinker said.

Alessandro Machi

March 6, 2012, 10:58 p.m.

Leave it to Barack Obama to be the leader of the pack in how to raise money and gain influence, and the back of the pack in getting results. 

We ALL would have been better off with a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Remember when most of your email was hand-composed by someone you know and addressed specifically to you?  Then the Direct Marketing Association used the ACLU to trick the Congress into legalizing spamming, just about the time it was outlawed in the EU and Australia.  They let the Nigerians and the get-rich-quick fools soften up the consumers to tolerate junk email, email as an advertising medium.
Remember when Democrat candidates got in trouble for spamming (2002)?  Remember when got in trouble for spamming (1998)?  Not any more.

You know, the right way to answer the question about the purpose of the e-mail segmentation isn’t to ask Obama, it’s to ask the recipients.  See how well the demographics divide the six messages.  If it’s clear, then it’s market segmentation.

The real question is what sort of information candidates are collecting and why they’re allowed to keep it secret.  If we don’t trust the White House (or Congress) with unlimited surveillance of our lives, why do we stand for the office’s aspirants collecting more?

Steven Gilbert

March 7, 2012, 12:18 p.m.

I would expect no less from a community organizer.  But really, where did this guy come from?  No, I’m not a birther.  Just asking who or what group decided to elevate an unknown with few accomplishments to his name other looking good in a suit and the ability to read from a script.  Yeah, he came off better than Hilary but how did he get on stage to compete with her?  Who decided?  It takes an organization to get on the map.  Who put it together?  And more importantly who funded it?  And finally, whoever these parties are, what is their agenda?

donald wallace

March 7, 2012, 6:32 p.m.

Please, dear readers…try to not engage in ad hominem arguments. The article was about fund raising strategy.

Steven Gilbert…you are asking the questions the media should have been asking back in 2007.  Let’s hope we get some answers this time around.  note to ProPublica:  your next investigation?

Alessandro Machi

March 7, 2012, 10:37 p.m.

Obama only got 56% of primary vote in Oklahoma, people are pissed that we are going to get four more years of Obama because the republicans are probably worse.

Barbara Flores

March 8, 2012, 11 a.m.

these tailored e-mails are offensive but I’m not sure why.  most all of us when writing anything to anyone try to make it word perfect.  is it that here voters and especially donors are mere commodities to be mollified and stroked.  Perhaps this is just an electronic version of hand pressing and baby kissing.  I signed up to receive e-mails from the White House and the campaign but it was such pablum I couldn’t stomach it.  Now we’re “selling”  a chance to be with the president.  How corny and yet people go for it. 
Obama was the won who broke his promise on public financing and essentially crippled the system, he decried the Citizens case but uses it to his benefit.  He received more money from Wall Street than McCain. Still, it is unnerving to be “classified.”

This not-so-subtle designing of e-mail messages from a slew of Democratic organizations became obvious to me many months ago.  Like Ms. Flores, I have been offended by the obvious attempts at emotional manipulation, and my single response has been not to respond to those messages at all.  I called the DCCC early on to complain about the multiple e-mails and calls each day, reminding them that I was already a monthly giver of a tiny amount (commensurate with my income), wondering why they didn’t seem to know or ever thank me for that.  A quasi-bullying e-mail signed by VP Biden (“just why *haven’t* you given?  You have to give now!”, or words to that effect) was the worst.  I can only assume their methods work on most people, but they don’t work on me.  My political leanings haven’t changed, my conviction to vote hasn’t changed, but my checkbook is closed to them.

Alessandro Machi

March 8, 2012, 1:53 p.m.

I’ve gotten 38 emails from Joe Biden. He’s got to do something while he’s “Biden” his time. The email that you are talking about, was probably implying, “if you plan on giving, you might as well give now so the donation has the most impact.”

Every time I get one of those emails it just reminds me that they only have my email address because I supported HILLARY CLINTON, who the top democratic party members screwed over big time in 2008, (along with, ironically, four or five female extremely well known females as well)

When does Propublica investigate credit card gate involving Nancy Pelosi, VISA, VISP IPO’s, the stalling of the credit card reform bill act for an entire year so Obama could then take credit for it, and, Obama accepting tens of millions of dollars in forged credit card donations back in 2008?

Marty Andersen

March 8, 2012, 10:53 p.m.

That’s all very interesting - most professional e-mail campaign managers use split variant testing, so it’s a safe bet that’s part of what’s going on here. A nod to the campaign’s collections of personal data at least alludes to ProPublica’s concern for our personal freedoms (though these reports have yet to address whether the campaign publishes a privacy policy as do most online services that request personal information.

My concern has more to do with the palpable lack of depth in ProPublica’s reporting on this matter as compared to so many other reports. Were you not able to round up the “you’re overdue” e-mails that raised so many eyebrows? Certainly ProPublica could find a source among marketing professors who would talk to you about assuming the sale (“Obama supporters like you”), and maybe a psychology professor who could talk about bullying, in-group formation and the hazards of group-think.

As you may have noticed, we’ve asked you for a donation a few times now.

But according to our records, you haven’t yet made an online donation to this campaign at this email address. (If our records are wrong, I apologize and thank you!)

I’m not writing to ask you for money again. I’m actually writing to ask your opinion about why you haven’t given, and what you think would inspire you or other Obama supporters like you to decide to take the leap and donate.


There’s a good reason we’re asking for your feedback: The kind of organization we all decided to be a part of only works if people like you pitch in to build it.

Social media cuts both ways.  It lets organizations deliver their message to people quickly and easily.  But, it also lets normal people compare notes with 10,000 of their closest friends.

Big organizations need to start behaving as if they’re in a small town.

At best, the importance of the article about Obama’s message machine is more apparent than real. Is this a hysterical search for something?/anything? to say about whatever?

Peter Broderson

March 27, 2012, 5:49 p.m.

It would seem most reasonable to me, to try several different types and styles of money-raising emails to see what works best.

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

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

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