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Campaign Direct Mailers: "It's All About Us!"

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Two weeks ago, I did what no person should ever do. I signed up for every presidential candidate's email list.

Taken together, the messages revealed campaigns' divergent attitudes not only toward campaign strategy, but toward politics itself. They also demonstrated how difficult it is to use a two-way medium for a broadcast announcement. Ah, but that's both the challenge of campaign email and the reality of a presidential campaign: it seems to be about us, but really it's about them.

There is the classic politics-as-sports metaphor. Richardson's campaign is compared to "Appalachian State's victory over Michigan." Candidate as underdog.

McCain is the quarterback when "the clock is running down and the game is on the line." Candidate as playmaker.

Romney supporters are welcomed to "Team Mitt." Candidate as T-ball coach.

Casting the campaign as an epic battle is also a tried and true (or at least tired and true) method. Paul: "Whenever I face a hit piece on tv, or a smear in a newspaper column, I remember my secret weapon: you." Me? What a terrifying image: voter as taser.

Other campaigns are not so literary. Gravel issues press releases. Guiliani's strategy director wrote us all a memo re: 4th QUARTER KICKOFF.

But no campaign adopts a more professional tone than Biden's. Most of his messages read like cover letters. "The Biden plan for a political solution in Iraq swept the Senate. Significantly, the plan won the support of more than half the Republicans..." We're invited to watch a video "to see what Joe Biden brings to this race." While Gravel and Guiliani treat the voters like office staff, Biden defers to us as a potential employer. He is, after all, applying for a job.

Dodd goes the other direction. "Hey," he writes breathlessly. "I only have a few seconds on my way back to Washington." The message is signed, "I'll be in touch soon. Chris" Sure enough, a few days later he begins, "Hey again."

Kudos to the campaign for trying a breezier approach, arguably more suitable to the casual medium of email, but at this point Dodd's messages just creep me out. Candidate as stalker.

Of course, everyone knows that candidates don't write their own email. Except for maybe Dennis Kucinich, whose precocious, Church Lady voice is almost audible through the screen. "The American Association of Retired Persons sponsored a Presidential forum in Iowa," he writes. "I was conveniently left out of the debate."

Of all the campaigns' emails, Obama's seem to fit most with an actual communication strategy. We're part of the family, the messages consistently imply. "All week, Jeff has been helping distribute tickets and coordinate volunteers out of his apartment. He works as a lawyer at the same law firm that Barack Obama worked for when he met Michelle, but he's taken an unpaid leave of absence since the beginning of the month, and he says he won't return to work until Barack wins the primary." It's like reading a Christmas letter.

Edwards' messages also emphasize family. They include snapshots of the staff at midnight--"I know it's a bit late to be e-mailing. But you're a part of our campaign family..."--and Cate writes to say "Dad is the only candidate who has never taken a dime from Washington lobbyists."

The difference is that the Edwards campaign has Joe Trippi, which is like hiring Lord Voldemort as a babysitter. "John and Elizabeth have made their choice," Trippi writes in an end-of-quarter fundraiser. "Now we're asking you to make your choice. What are you going to do in the days and weeks ahead to change America?" The tone is ominous and accusing. And effective.

I thought I detected Trippi's dark magic in what was hands down the most memorable campaign email: a video of Elizabeth Edwards. She leans toward the viewer as if from across the kitchen table. "We think we have all the time in the world," she says, and it's possible her voice catches. "Well we don't." The Obamas are full of sunny optimism, but the Edwards family knows grief and tragedy, and they're not afraid to remind us that politics is a matter of life and death.

Of course, it takes Clinton to bring us back to the mundane reality of modern campaigning. In two weeks, I received only one message from the Clinton campaign. It struck an awkward tone between gracious and aggressive, First Lady and President. She thanked me for joining and offered the free gift of a bumper sticker, then reminded me twice to pick it up from the website, where I could also "read my plan to provide quality, affordable health care and look at a photo album of some of my favorite moments from the campaign so far." Candidate as professional pol, disguised as the girl next door.

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