Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Candidates Add Email to Campaign Arsenal

On Sept. 5, Michelle Obama sent a message to her husband's email list with the subject line, "As always, thank you." It was the morning after her speech to the Democratic convention, and she wrote: "I know your life is full -- with work, or school, or family -- and yet you still find the time to help out when you can. You may have a tight budget, but you give what you can afford."

In two short sentences, plus the subject line, she used some version of the word "you" seven times. Then she noted that one family recently "skipped pizza at their favorite place so that they could make a difference in this election." In a concluding P.S., she added: "It meant a lot to me to speak with you and everyone else last night. Thank you for everything you do."

Both candidates communicate with their followers in many ways -- through speeches and interviews, commercials and videos. But the emails sent by both campaigns over the last two weeks offer a particular insight into their rival strategies.

Team Obama places top priority on making supporters feel directly connected to the campaign effort, on making them feel that their contributions -- in money, energy, effort -- are invaluable. The most common word used in those emails is not "I" or "me" but "you."

Leading up to midnight on Aug. 31, the campaign's fundraising pleas became increasingly fervent and frequent. At 9:58 that night, Barack Obama wrote: "After three straight months of being outraised and recently being outspent -- in some key states more than 3-to-1 -- your support before the deadline couldn't be more urgent."

It worked. Obama raked in $114 million in August, barely edging Mitt Romney for the first time in three months and adding a boatload of names to a donor base that's reached 3.2 million.

Team Obama has always insisted that supporters should not be treated simply as ATMs, so the emails offer many ways for ordinary folks to get involved besides giving money. Join Michelle on a conference call for student volunteers. Attend a convention watch party in your neighborhood and bring a friend. This link will help you register to vote, that link will get you to a new video, and here's one to an online shop where Vote Obama beach towels are on an end-of-season special.

Recent polls reveal the reasoning behind this push to energize volunteers. In the new ABC News/Washington Post survey, Obama posts a 6-point lead among registered voters but is held to a virtual tie among likely voters. That puts a huge premium on efforts to identify and turn out folks on Election Day who already agree with you.

Romney's strategy is quite different. He uses email less often, and fewer communications are aimed at raising money. Instead, they're aimed at raising temperatures. The most common word in his messages is "Obama," and they're designed to stoke anger and outrage among his backers.

An email sent on Sept. 8, for example, is titled "The cold hard truth." Communications director Gail Gitcho writes: "No amount of liberal mythology or political theater in Charlotte can mask the cold, hard truth: This president has not kept his promises, and America is not better off."

This is Team Romney's strongest campaign theme, and the ABC News/Washington Post poll shows why. Only one in five voters say they're better off financially than when Obama took office.

Romney's emails repeat many of his standard campaign riffs and are designed to portray government in the worst possible light. One on Sept. 6, titled "Scandals and cronies," attacks Obama for backing Solyndra, a solar energy company that "went bankrupt and left American taxpayers to pick up the bill." Another, on Sept. 5, insists the president has "effectively gutted" welfare reform. A third denounces the president's stimulus bill for wasting federal money repairing tennis courts and studying honeybees.

It's a popular line of argument. By 53 percent to 40 percent, voters say government programs do more to interfere in people's lives than to improve them.

The Democrats' core theme is: like Obama (and his wife) and work for them. The Republicans' retort: hate Obama (and big government) and vote against them. It's no wonder that 74 percent of Obama supporters say they're voting for the president and not against his rival; only 35 percent of Romney backers describe their vote as a positive gesture of support.

So which is more powerful? Admiration or animosity? That's a key question voters will decide in November.

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