Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign ended roughly a year ago but it lives on in spirit on the Internet, where the list of email addresses she assembled continues to be one of the most envied instruments in American politics.
In just the first three months of this year, her campaign—still existing, though in skeletal form—brought in $4.7 million by renting and selling the addresses on the email list to groups ranging from President Obama’s inaugural committee to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign for California governor to her own Senate committee, not to mention EMILY’s List, which seeks to elect female abortion rights supporters, and Media Matters, a progressive organization that monitors the media.
To them, Clinton’s vaunted list—estimated to include as many as 2.5 million email addresses— is a virtual license to print money for Democratic pols and causes. Indeed, as fundraising continues its migration to the Internet, email addresses and zip codes have become increasingly valuable, not only for their unrivaled ability to solicit millions in contributions in explosive bursts, but also as commodities in and of themselves.
Yet Clinton’s online mint isn’t even considered the best in its class. There are a handful of other lists, in both parties, that are thought to be either equal or even more potent.
Using the criteria used by political pros to assess the value of these emails lists—size, freshness, comprehensiveness (does it include addresses, land lines, cell phone numbers or donation data?), open rates (what percentage of emails in a given send get opened), click-throughs (how many links are activated), actions and donations (how many emails result in a contribution or a letter to member of Congress) as well as intangibles like buzz and list managers’ skills—here is POLITICO’s ranking of the top five most potent email lists in politics.
1.) Organizing for America
This is the 13-million email list that Obama built during his presidential campaign and rode into the White House. It is in a league of its own, not only in terms of size, but with regards to its management.
Online contributions derived from the list accounted for an estimated $500 million of Obama’s historic $750 million fundraising haul.
But the power of Obama’s list transcends fundraising. Its sweeping data sets were used – in combination with Obama’s 3 million text- and SMS-number list and 2 million active social network users – to engage subsets of supporters with messages tailored to their interests or location.
In the weeks after Obama’s victory, there were signs that Team Obama might have burned out subscribers as some balked at a cacophony of post-Election Day emails hawking Obama coffee mugs, calendars and scarves and seeking donations for his inauguration, transition, Clinton’s debt and for California wildfire victims.
But since Obama directed the advisers he installed at the Democratic National Committee, which has its own 2.5-million email inventory, to use his list to rally support for his administration’s initiatives, it has developed a more cohesive message.
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The liberal grassroots group started in 1998 as an email petition asking Congress to "censure President Clinton and move on." But since then, it has grown into a multi-million dollar, multi-issue force that former director Tom Matzzie estimates at 5.5 million members.
The group, which now consists of a well-funded political branch and an issue advocacy arm, took off after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when it merged with a half-million email anti-war list launched by Eli Pariser, who became MoveOn’s executive director.
Though its aggressive ads occasionally backfire, MoveOn’s strength lies in its political giving and its activist liberal membership, which it regularly polls to determine which issues to pursue.
“Most lists end up dying after a while, especially when they start up off of one single cause,” said Kevin Thurman, a strategist for Bullseye Interactive Media who’s plotted online strategy for several Democratic campaigns and groups. “They keep finding new ways to activate people, keep them participating, and have managed to turn this list of people into a political organization that takes on a variety of issues from health care to everything on the planet and has become one of the most powerful organizations in the country.”
3.) Republican National Committee
By far the biggest list on the right, at about 12 million emails strong, the RNC’s list would rank higher, but it’s thought to be somewhat tainted because segments of it were obtained through outside list exchanges with John McCain’s presidential campaign and list purchases and rentals, including from conservative media outlets Human Events, Townhall, NewsMax and the Weekly Standard.
“That’s a con – it’s not entirely organic,” conceded Cyrus Krohn, who was the RNC’s eCampaign Director during the 2008 campaign until he resigned in March after new chairman Michael Steele took over.
Still, he noted, “size matters.”
“Just as an example, if your list is 10 million names large and you know that your open rate is going to be 2 percent, and you know that one half of one percent are going to donate an average of $25, you can pretty much create a formula that informs what your donations are going to be,” he said.
The RNC’s list “is not just large in aggregate, but there’s critical mass in key states and key regions of the country that can be very impactful when strategically harnessed,” he said, cautioning “if you have a large list, you have to be smart about how you utilize it.”
The RNC raised $428 million for the 2008 election cycle – $167 million than the DNC.
4.) American Solutions for Winning the Future
Newt Gingrich’s non-profit, much like the Republican former House Speaker, has a knack for identifying and capitalizing on issues that resonate with the GOP base.
In the last year alone, it collected more than 1 million email addresses by getting out in front of the offshore drilling push and another 200,000 emails through an anti-Employee Free Choice Act effort.
In a measure of its potency, the group’s anti-stimulus plan emails drove so much traffic to the website hosted by the Tea Party organizers that it overwhelmed their system, crashing their site.
Since Gingrich started American Solutions in October 2006, it’s built a 1.5-million-email list, raised more than $24 million and hired a large staff, including fundraisers, an online team and a pollster.
Gingrich, who also maintains a separate email list with many thousands of subscribers to promote his books and media appearances, has no intention of using the American Solutions list for a future political run, said group spokesman Dan Kotman.
“American Solutions is totally dedicated to developing solutions and talking about ideas – we just want to keep our members engaged in the political process,” Kotman said. “We try to make it relevant and topical to people, because people are getting an overload of emails.”
5.) Hillary Clinton and John McCain (tie)
Bulk is what distinguishes the lists of these two vanquished presidential candidates. Both are simply too big to be ignored, though they face obstacles to remaining in the top tier.
Informed estimates put the list McCain assembled during his presidential campaign in the neighborhood of 7 million emails. Though he’s subsequently launched both a leadership political action committee and a Senate reelection campaign, neither entity has been particularly active in engaging the full national list.
McCain has never been an enthusiastic fundraiser or a favorite of the party’s base, both powerful reasons to doubt his list’s effectiveness.
Clinton, whose presidential campaign sold most of its email list to her still-operating Senate campaign for $2.6 million, is legally barred from raising cash or engaging in other partisan political activities while she’s Secretary of State. Though her Senate campaign and renters like NoLimits.org, a new non-profit headed by former Clinton aide Ann Lewis, can help keep parts of the list fresh, Bullseye’s Thurman said that’s no substitute for an engaged principal cultivating a list.
“Hillary Clinton’s list is obviously very strong, but you can’t rank it that high because she can’t nurture it while she is secretary of state,” said Thurman, who served as deputy Internet director for Clinton’s presidential campaign. “And it’s very hard to transfer it from one organization to another.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
An innovative arrangement helped build an estimated 1.5-million-email list (the DSCC disputes this estimate, but refused to reveal the size of their list) and boost its fundraising—the DSCC offers Senate candidates discounts on its web technology in exchange for some of the emails they’ve assembled by the end of their campaigns.
This small, but emerging list is being assembled under the auspices of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports female politicians who oppose abortion rights. The list , which now boasts more than 100,000 emails, saw its membership spike soon after McCain tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – a vigorous abortion rights opponent – to be his running mate.
The group responded by forming an online social network called Team Sarah that is not affiliated with Palin, but now boasts nearly 70,000 members who have used it to organize Tea Parties and oppose Obama administration nominees.
“It’s not beneficial to have a list of 1 million people who don’t read your stuff most of the time and don’t really do anything about it" when they do, said SBA List political director Joy Yearout. “We’re in the business of engaging people in the political process and we want good, dedicated people. … Our vision right now for Team Sarah is to make it the conservative MoveOn.org.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
This list, which some estimates put at 500,000 emails, is among the strongest senatorial lists.
Boxer, who’s been building it for six years and has used it to raise millions for her own campaign and for other Democrats, benefits from being a liberal Democrat from among the most liberal states – a state which also happens to be a top political ATM.
American Family Association
This socially conservative nonprofit, which owns 180 radio stations in 28 states, boasts a list estimated at 1.5 million emails, which it uses to rally support for values-oriented causes including de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts and opposing what it calls the “Homosexual Agenda.”