Hillary vs. Bernie: Applying Email Marketing Measurement to Track a Political Race’s Shifting Momentum

Bernie Sanders was winning. Heading into the first democratic presidential debate, Sanders’ email messages were reaching more users than Hillary Clinton’s and his program was performing significantly better. In the week before the event, nearly 95 percent of his email reached the inbox, almost 19 percent was read, and less than 13 percent was ignored (deleted without being read).

The Clinton campaign clearly lagged. Less than 16 percent of its email messages were being read and 10 percent were going straight to spam. On the positive side less than 12 percent of the campaign’s email was being ignored, but the program needed a boost to catch up to Sanders’ engagement, and the televised debate provided a timely opportunity to reach a national audience and energize subscribers.

‘She Won’
Clinton emailed her subscribers that night, “Turn on Your TV,” and 20 percent read the message. The next day 19 percent read the message, “She won.” Over the following week the Clinton campaign’s email program maintained its lift with statistically significant improvements in read rate (17 percent) and inbox placement rate (91 percent).

More importantly, the number of messages within distinct campaigns rose by nearly 25 percent after Clinton’s debate performance, suggesting a surge in new signups to help close the gap between her and Sanders’ programs.

But Sanders’ email program generated a lift of its own after the debate. Despite a more modest single-digit increase in campaign sending volume, Sanders appeared to end the week with at least 20 percent more email subscribers than Clinton. Moreover his messages posted statistically significant improvements in inbox placement rate (better than 95 percent) and read rate (22 percent), and subscribers were less likely to ignore his messages than Clinton’s — a switch from pre-debate trends.

A year away from Election Day, Bernie Sanders’ email subscriber engagement suggests that his campaign is still reaching and connecting with voters more effectively than Hillary Clinton’s.

(He Didn’t)
Meanwhile Martin O’Malley’s email engagement saw little movement in the week following the debate. His inbox placement rate (85 percent) and read rate (16 percent) trailed the others, and while fewer subscribers deleted O’Malley’s messages without reading them (8 percent), his campaigns reached a fraction of the audience that Clinton and Sanders have amassed. Based solely on relative email program performance, O’Malley is decidedly an “also-ran” at this point in the presidential campaign.

On the other hand, O’Malley’s campaigns reached far larger audiences than either Lincoln Chafee’s or Jim Webb’s campaigns, neither of which had attracted enough subscribers to constitute a statistically valid sample for this comparison. Unsurprisingly both ended their candidacies soon after the debate.

There is no shortage of polls or signals to feed political punditry, of course, but email subscriber engagement — the same measure that direct marketers use to gauge campaign success — offers a uniquely multidimensional view of the candidates’ abilities to reach and motivate their supporters.

The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns famously out-emailed GOP opponents, building vastly bigger lists and using subscriber engagement to test and optimize fundraising campaigns that generated impressive contributions from small donors. As Sanders and Clinton vie for their party’s nomination, tracking their respective email subscriber engagement could offer key insight into which contestant is more likely to appear on next November’s ballot. So direct marketers may be the first to know.

Tom Sather is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter. Tom’s previous experience includes roles with email service provider Experian and on the abuse desks for AOL, Bellsouth, AT&T and GTE.


Tom Sather is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter. Tom’s previous experience includes roles with email service provider Experian and on the abuse desks for AOL, Bellsouth, AT&T and GTE.
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