Email Inboxes and the Iowa Caucus
Most years, Iowa’s top exports are corn, tractors and pork. But on Feb. 1, 2016, the Hawkeye State’s chief export was drama. The Iowa caucus has long been a make-or-break event for presidential candidates. A win in Iowa typically means precious donor money will come rolling in; a loss is often seen as a portend of a campaign’s demise. When the votes were tallied this time around, there was a major upset, a virtual tie and the end of the road for four candidates.
Marketing strategies coincide with the success or failure of each candidate. The two weeks preceding an election are crucial for so-called “get out the vote” efforts. Those who effectively harness marketing communications can expect to perform better than those who do not. So, with email as our guide, let’s see what can be learned by those who fared well at the 2016 Iowa caucus.
How the Candidates Stack Up
The table below shows a few clear distinctions by party and by candidate. For one, Democratic candidates send far more campaigns than their Republican counterparts, at a ratio of nearly 4:1. This indicates greater segmentation, more testing and emphasis on finding the sweet spot with the electorate.
Key findings from the data:
- Read rates held steady for each candidate, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rising above the average.
- Deleted without reading (DwR) rates, a proxy for how many people are ignoring messages, held steady as well, with Marco Rubio dropping below average and Trump receiving the most ignores.
- Finally, the ever-important mailbox provider-marked spam rate. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are grand master spammers, with each pushing 4 percent. That means nearly one in every two emails sent by the Cruz and Rubio campaigns go directly to junk. Not good when trying to drum up support.
[Note about the charts: the Average Spam Rate is mailbox provider-marked spam]
Cruzing to Victory
The headline out of Iowa this year was Ted Cruz’s defeat of billionaire Donald Trump. The day before the caucus, Huffington Post showed Trump with 32 percent to Cruz’s 12 percent in nationwide polls. And although Cruz led Trump in Iowa-centric polls, just days before the caucus the Des Moines Register reported Trump had reclaimed the lead by five points. And yet, at the end of the night, Cruz beat Trump by 3.5 percent (a near 7 percent flip).
Though significant, Cruz’s victory was marred by accusations that his campaign sent emails to supporters asserting fellow candidate Ben Carson’s intent to suspend his campaign. Carson claimed he made no such statement and several fellow Republicans have since accused Cruz of using underhanded tactics to win in Iowa. Email is powerful, but as we see, with great power comes great responsibility.
Although activity ramped up as the caucuses approached, there were some inexplicable drop-offs in contact. Campaign volume in the two weeks prior to a momentous event should look like an exponential curve; gradually, yet constantly increasing, with a sharp upward tick in the days and hours before go time.
Trumped by Overconfidence
While proudly bombastic, Donald Trump simply bombed in Iowa. Jeb Bush might be low energy, but Trump is dragging when it comes to campaign volume. Nevertheless, where volume is lacking, readership still appears to be high. It is easy to speculate that many on the Donald’s list are journalists and other mere looky-loos, rather than genuine supporters, accounting for the relatively high read rate. However, polls still show he is twice as popular as any other Republican candidate.
Rubio’s Third Place Win
Never before has third place seemed like such a victory. After the caucus, Marco Rubio stood at the podium beaming as if he had just won it all. His enthusiasm and optimism was not totally unfounded. While not quite a dark horse, the Florida senator went into Iowa seven points behind Donald Trump and was able to close the gap to 1.5. With his high-heeled boots planted firmly on the edge of oblivion, looking down at the long tail of the elephant pack, Rubio claimed a hard-earned bronze.
Of the top three Republican candidates, Rubio’s email strategy most closely approximates what a seasoned marketer would expect to happen prior to an election. Volume and number of emails steadily rises to a peak just prior to the event. Still, that spam rate is astronomical. If Rubio wants to make sure his message is received, he has got to figure out why his emails aren’t making it to the inbox.
Democrats Promote Equality
The Democratic race might have fewer participants, but it is certainly no less competitive. Bernie Sanders astounded critics with a stunning come-from-behind tie. Almost exactly one year before the Iowa caucuses, Sanders trailed presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton by 55 percent. In Iowa, voters reduced that margin to a mere 0.3 percent. While Team Hillary were right to claim victory, they were undoubtedly feeling the Bern with Sanders hot on their heels.
The Clinton camp has been expert at segmentation, testing, and delivery. Low spam rates ensure emails are making it to the intended destination. Though, a 12 percent read rate leaves about 10 percent of uncertainty as to who, exactly, is #withher.
Like the Clinton camp, Bernie and Co. are segmenting and testing like pros. Read rate is higher than average for presidential frontrunners for both parties, but so is the spam rate.
Each candidate seems to have a unique email marketing strategy. The Democrats are perhaps most alike in that both Clinton and Sanders employ best practices that ensure emails reach their audience and speak to their audience, and key metrics are gauged to swiftly change tactics when necessary.
Like their mascot, the Republicans are a bit slower moving, lumbering along with outdated email practices, resulting in (with the exception of Donald Trump) exceedingly high spam rates. As primary elections heat up and delegates come at higher and higher costs, Republicans will have to adapt to new school email practices to stay relevant with their audiences; a challenge, but not an impossibility. After all, even Dumbo could fly!