THE BLOG

Clinton Polls Her Email List

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Clinton campaign's recent poll of its online supporters through polling firm Penn Schoen and Berland Associates is a sign that the campaign is integrating traditional political tactics into its Internet strategy. Political campaigns have always contacted donors and potential supporters via phone polls or direct mail appeals to find out more about their political preferences and leanings, but Clinton's campaign is going one step further, applying similar techniques to obtain a potentially more accurate portrait of its email list.

In early December, chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn's private polling firm, Penn Schoen and Berland Associates (PSB), administered a nearly 100-question survey to subscribers of the Clinton campaign's email list. The list members received an email from PSBSurveys.com, a website owned by PSB that pays people for participating in web surveys. The email, sent with the subject line "Election 2008: Who Would You Vote For?", asked recipients to participate in a "fun and interesting" research study about their opinions on the 2008 election. The only explanation as to why people received the survey is a sentence toward the bottom of the email: "You received this email because you subscribed to receive emails about politics."

"The campaign ocassionally [sic] polls its donors and supporters" according to Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates is the campaign's pollster. PSB is allowed to send email to Clinton's email list because each person opted-in to the privacy policy on HillaryClinton.com, which states: "On occasion, we may also use the information that you provide online to contact you for other purposes or to solicit you for contributions." This sentence is a near-catch-all for any type of communication from the campaign, and there was nothing unseemly about the way Hillary Clinton's campaign and PSB conducted this survey given this policy. However, the approach taken by PSB stands out among political campaigns' surveys of its email lists.

It is a common practice for companies and organizations to survey email list members. List owners gain a greater understanding of the habits, preferences, and demographic makeup of the respondents. At least one other 2008 presidential candidate, Chris Dodd, used web surveys to poll its list on their online preferences, but those surveys were sent under the banner of Dodd's campaign.

Brent Blackaby of Blackrock Associates, a Democratic online marketing consulting firm, says that he has administered web surveys for a number of Democratic campaigns. "Most were branded with the campaign's identity, so people clearly knew who was asking and why," said Blackaby. But even in cases when the campaign conducts a survey using a generic polling service, "you lose branding, but I've always found it helpful to have it so people have more confidence in why they're being asked to participate." In this case, PSB took what is currently understood by Internet strategists as an unusual approach for a political campaign's online survey, emailing a web poll to subscribers of the campaign's email list without telling recipients that the message or survey questions were from the candidate.

As political campaigns take to the web, some are beginning to survey their email lists to ask questions of potential supporters and donors. At the most basic level, campaigns use polls to build their email lists, such as voting for which candidates a PAC should support. But now campaigns are engaging with list members on a deeper level; with the expanse of the social internet, more campaigns ask if their supporters shop online, read blogs, or watch videos on YouTube.

The first part of Clinton's web survey asks broad questions about the 2008 election, but about halfway through the survey, begins to ask specific questions about Hillary Clinton, including asking what it would take for the person to`donate to Clinton's campaign. Throughout the survey, respondents are reminded that answers "remain strictly confidential and [are] used for research purposes only. We will never give or sell your personal information to any third parties."

The survey also sheds light on what the campaign sees as its biggest vulnerabilities, as well as its biggest priorities. One series of questions asks respondents to choose the candidate they'd vote for today; the first question has the whole Democratic field, the second has only Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, and the third question is only Clinton and Obama. More than a half-dozen questions asked about perceptions of negative campaigning: if Hillary was attacking her opponents, if other candidates were attacking Hillary, and if so, if it was attacks on policy or attacks because "she is winning."

Following Barack Obama's weekend rallies with Oprah Winfry, the Clinton campaign is likely looking to bring out its own celebrity surrogates, and soon. Two different survey questions try to gauge supporters' views on other candidates and on celebrities who support Hillary. One question asks which celebrity supporter would be the best with which to spend time, including Stephen Spielberg, Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal, Chevy Chase, Barbara Streisand, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The Clinton campaign's purposefully unbranded survey is not an innovation in itself, but it does mark a significant new extension of old politics into the new.