Your email is for sale — and 2020 candidates are paying up

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Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama have made campaign bucks by renting out their email lists. Meanwhile, 2020 Democrats are paying up to build their own lists. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

In a crowded campaign season where candidates spar to access coveted donor bases, building a robust list of email addresses of potential donors could be the winning ticket.

The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) requirement that candidates reach 65,000 unique donors to earn a spot on the presidential debate stage created a rush for individual contributions. Political consultants say the scramble for donors created a historically expensive market for digital ads, many designed to obtain the email address and/or cell phone numbers of potential donors. The intense concentration has some candidates spending more than $35 to earn a single $1 donor through Facebook ads.

But campaigns have also spent cold hard campaign cash to acquire access to contact information of potential supporters, particularly in early primary states. Most campaigns get the majority of their online contributions through emails, even as other methods such as text message solicitation pick up steam.

“Email is still king for the average campaign,” said Greg Berlin, a founding partner at Democratic digital consulting firm Mothership Strategies. “However, campaigns with significant notoriety are able to capture donations from a much wider variety of online sources: direct donate ads, search, texting and organic social.”

FEC filings reveal that 2020 presidential contenders have shelled out significant sums to “rent” email addresses from fellow candidates or political consultants in an effort to reach new supporters, many of whom are unaware of the trades taking place between consulting firms and campaigns.

A simple list of emails may be worth thousands, if not millions of dollars. Because acquiring a past donor’s email address does not guarantee a contribution for another candidate, marketing firms that buy up the lists from campaigns, and neophyte candidates who need cash will typically make a deal called “revenue sharing.” For every contribution the campaign scores from a donor based on a shared email, the consulting firm or email owner gets a cut.

Federal candidates and groups have already spent at least $6.7 million to rent or acquire lists including email addresses or other contact information through the first quarter of 2019, according to expenditures described in FEC filings.

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Klobuchar (left) has disclosed acquiring lists from various sources. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spent a whopping $625,547 with Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive for “list acquisition” and $30,000 and $25,000 to the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic parties for email lists, respectively. With nearly $4 million in leftover campaign money from her 2018 Senate race, Klobuchar could easily afford to make the early investment, as could fellow senators seeking the nomination.

The state parties in early primary states are making serious money by renting out their supporters’ contact information.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) paid $30,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party, $25,000 to the New Hampshire Democratic Party and $13,500 to Democrats.com to rent lists of contacts. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also reported paying the Iowa Democratic Party $30,000, this time for “voter file” information, which typically includes names, addresses and phone numbers of registered voters.

In preparation for a presidential run last cycle, former Vice President Joe Biden’s American Possibilities PAC paid $34,329 to two companies for “list acquisition.”

Former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who began his White House bid in 2017, paid a total of $132,013 to several Iowa candidates during the 2018 cycle for their email lists. Those include unsuccessful Iowa gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell and Rep. Cindy Axne.

These closed-door agreements between campaigns and email owners occur unbeknownst to donors. When voters sign up to receive campaign updates or give a few bucks to their favorite candidate, they don’t often know their contribution may be divided up or their emails shared. And these transactions aren’t always labeled as such in FEC filings, potentially leaving millions of dollars in list-sharing activities unaccounted for.

Nobody’s list is as large as that of President Donald Trump, whose campaign has built up a massive following by spending big on social media. Using a head start, Trump’s campaign has outspent all of the 2020 Democrats combined on digital ads, shelling out $19 million compared to the main Democratic presidential contenders’ $18 million since May 2018.

Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale told Fox News in January the campaign has “already harvested really what we need off Facebook.”  

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Trump has built a massive list primarily through digital ads. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“So, the way you have to look at this is, we try to harvest and bring people in to become direct contacts,” Parscale told Fox News. “Cell phone numbers, email addresses, things that we can have direct contact. A good candidate might have four to five million by Election Day. We’ll probably [have] 40, 50, 60 million.”

Political groups and candidates are eager to get their hands on Trump’s massive list of contacts. Luckily for them, those email addresses and cell phone numbers are already up for sale. The New York Times reported in October 2018 that the Trump campaign signed a contract with Virginia-based consultant Excelsior Strategies to rent contact information of Trump supporters.

The list sharing appears to already be in effect. Excelsior Strategies paid the Trump campaign $548,107 in February for “list rental revenue.” Parscale called the deal a “win-win” because Republican candidates and groups would get access to potential supporters and the Trump campaign would make more money.

Those contacts could be crucial for Republicans hoping to build a small dollar donor base in the 2020 election. Social media giants allow advertisers to narrowly target users to find likely supporters, but political consultants still use a mix of traditional list rental and social media advertising to build their lists.

“Digital advertising to list build is like drilling for oil,” said Michael Duncan, a Republican consultant at Cavalry LLC. “You dig a lot of holes and when you hit a gusher, you turn up the budget. The email prospecting universe is helpful in that those emails are already validated.”

While candidates have expressed frustration with the DNC debate rules that have forced campaigns to cut staff budgets and ramp up digital spending, Duncan said the rules will ensure the eventual Democratic nominee has a massive list of potential donors.

“The candidates might hate it, but by incentivizing candidates to invest in digital donor prospecting, they are building an even larger centralized database,” Duncan said. “So whether you’re Andrew Yang or you’re Bernie Sanders, if you get to that 65,000 number, you’re benefiting whoever the nominee is.”

List sharing isn’t new … or looked down upon

Like Trump, Barack Obama had quite the large list of supporters too. And by his second term, he was eager to rent it out.

The Obama campaign gave data to the DNC in 2013 but reportedly did not give out email addresses. Obama’s campaign instead rented those email addresses out to Organizing for Action, a 501(c)(4) launched by former Obama operatives, and earned $2.6 million between 2013 and 2014.

In the two years following Obama’s second presidential race, his campaign raked in millions of dollars renting out supporters’ contact information. Much of his golden listserv went to AB Data, a marketing consulting firm that, among other services, rents contact information, including physical addresses, to other groups looking to reach potential donors.

AB Data rented Obama lists in the 2018 cycle. Candidates then paid AB Data for “direct marketing.” For instance, gun control group Giffords — run by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) — has continued to pay them into 2019. Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly is currently running for Senate in Arizona.

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Obama’s campaign raked in millions of dollars by renting out its massive list, as did his 2012 opponent Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, also leaned on list rentals. Romney’s defunct campaign made nearly $2.7 million in the 2014 cycle by sharing its list with Granite Lists, Newsmax Media, Targeted Victory and FSL Connect, LLC. The campaign made another $2.8 million between 2015 and 2016 selling the list to the same companies.

Granite Lists paid the most — $945,813 — in the two years after his presidential campaign. The New Hampshire direct marketing company has continued to pay Romney’s presidential campaign into the 2020 cycle — spending about $45,300 just this year.

Billing itself as the go-to for Republican lists, Granite Lists offers a number of deals. Customers may select a number of donor lists ranging from Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Mitt Romney to “anti-Elizabeth Warren” donors. For example, one list includes 35,938 emails of donors who gave at least $15 to Ron Johnson, offering 1,000 email addresses for $120.

News outlets are getting in on the action, too. Through the first quarter of 2019, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) paid Kos Media, LLC, the company that runs the Daily Kos political blog, a total of $29,408 for “list rental.” The Daily Kos sends emails to a segment of its list on behalf of partner organizations that give its audience the opportunity to sign up to join the partner organization, said Carolyn Fiddler, Daily Kos communications director.

Nonprofit news outlet Mother Jones also took in list rental money, receiving $32,000 from left-leaning groups to start the new year.

The practice was worthwhile for some media outlets last cycle, too. A host of left-leaning groups paid weekly magazine The Nation a total of $231,402 for “list rentals” during the 2018 cycle. Caitlin Graf, vice president of communications at the magazine, said the company sends out dedicated emails on behalf of its sponsors but does not give out its readers’ information to sponsors.

A new group called Bold Conservatives PAC reported paying Newsmax Media $17,800 for “list rental to identify supporters,” among other things, last year. Newsmax’s advertising kit notes that sponsors can pay for email alerts sent by the news company.

The business of selling lists is a lucrative one. Democratic activist John Hlinko was paid more than $2 million by pro-Democratic groups for his email lists in the 2018 cycle alone. He runs the group Left Action, which has 1.3 million followers on Facebook and primarily posts anti-Trump memes. Like many other candidates and groups, Left Action uses petitions to obtain email addresses of politically-active Democrats.

The group has continued to make money in the 2020 cycle. The National Democratic Training Committee PAC paid a total of $204,000 to Left Action for “list rental” as it attempted to reach potential Democratic candidates.

List rental is particularly useful for new groups looking to build an audience right away. But it will also be important in the 2020 election as Democrats and Republicans fight for small donors, which are becoming crucial to building and sustaining a major campaign.  

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