POLITICS

Early Poll Numbers Make Lousy Crystal Balls -- But Great Fundraising Emails

04/30/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

It may be too early in the 2016 election cycle to expect polls to predict the next U.S. president with any accuracy, but it's not too early to use them to raise money.

That's what groups like EMILY's List are counting on. On Wednesday, the political action committee, which works to get pro-choice female Democrats elected to office, sent an email out to supporters with the subject line, "Polls: Scott Walker Has Momentum."

A graphic embedded in the email reads: "Potential GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker proudly signed anti-choice legislation into law in Wisconsin. He is also gaining momentum in the polls" (emphasis theirs). A chart follows, which uses numbers obtained from HuffPost Pollster's 2016 GOP primary poll chart, that shows Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's support rising 5 points against his Republican rivals nationwide since January.

The email pleads for donations to oppose Walker's campaign: "Donate before tomorrow's deadline to stop his momentum and keep his anti-woman policies out of the White House."

Is Walker's "momentum" in the polls even worthy of attention at the moment?

Political scientists often make the case that horse-race polls this early in the campaign don't mean much and should be approached with skepticism, at least as a predictor of the eventual outcome. The Huffington Post's data scientist Natalie Jackson points out that it will likely be at least a year before a real frontrunner will begin to emerge. In the meantime, the true frontrunner is "undecided."

Walker has gained support since January, when he launched an exploratory committee for a presidential campaign, as evident in HuffPost Pollster's 2016 GOP primary chart. A look at the entire 2016 GOP primary, however, reveals a crowded field in which the candidates are only separated by single digits. Poll numbers for all the candidates will likely fluctuate throughout the year, and any "momentum" will ebb and flow.

But polling, at whatever stage of the campaign, has proved a very effective peg on which to hang fundraising efforts. The Wall Street Journal cited a study by Harvard and UC Berkeley that found people are more likely to open fundraising emails -- and to donate money -- when the emails say a candidate is in trouble and trailing narrowly in the polls.

In the 2014 election cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a slew of doomsday emails to supporters in its effort to raise money. According to the National Journal, emails with headlines that threatened impending disaster -- such as "DOOMED" and "STAGGERING setback" -- worked well for the DCCC. According to the Washington Post, the DCCC outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee by $33 million. A good portion of that -- $50 million of the entire pool of about $206 million -- was raised in small online donations.

Slate's John Dickerson explained the drawback of such emails:

Perhaps it's effective, but there's a larger point to be made about political fundraising emails: They are a bouillon cube of all that is awful about American politics -- the grasping for money, the neediness, the phony plays on your emotion, the baiting, and reduction of anything complex into its most incendiary form.

As poll numbers continue to meander and as the competition to raise more and more money heats up in the next few months, expect more poll-panicked emails in your inbox.

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