There has been a great deal of discussion in the aftermath of the US election on the way in which the Obama campaign stayed in touch with its supporters electronically. Indeed, the quantity of email sent from the Obama campaign reached sufficient levels that the The Daily Show labeled it “Obama Spam”. Of course, email can go both directions. With that in mind, we present the following guest post from University of Bologna (and NYU-Florence) political scientist Cristian Vaccari.
In spite of all the hype for social media and sophisticated database technologies, email is still one of the most universal tools for online campaigning. For instance, 92% of American adults who are online use email. Among the many ways in which citizens can contact parties, candidates, and elected officials, email is probably the easiest and most accessible one. Moreover, in light of the widespread low levels of trust in parties and institutions across Western democracies, email might help politicians reconnect with citizens. Yet, according to my research, almost two-thirds of emails that reached parties and Presidential candidates during national elections went unanswered.
As part of a broader study of the online presence of parties, party leaders, and Presidential candidates in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US, I tested whether and how rapidly their staffs responded to two types of emails (sent from separate fictitious accounts in the official language of each country): one asking for their positions on taxes (a cross-cutting issue that should not strongly differentiate between different types of parties), the other pledging to be willing to volunteer for them and asking for directions on how to do so. Emails were sent in the two weeks prior to national elections between 2007 and 2010 to a total of 142 parties and candidates. The results speak volumes to the lack of responsiveness among political actors: excluding automated responses, only one in five emails received a reply within one business day.
In a multivariate analysis that included variables measuring technological development, the socio-political context, and party organizational variables, I found that parties tend to respond more than candidates, that more resourceful parties are more likely to answer the issue question (but not the volunteer pledge, indicating that poorer parties are more careful not to waste opportunities to add volunteer hours), and that progressive parties tend to respond more than conservatives do. (In case you are interested, both during the 2008 primary and general election Barack Obama’s campaign answered both emails, whereas McCain’s did not. Overall, US parties and Presidential candidates were less likely than average to reply to both emails.)
Answering emails is not an easy organizational task. In a national election, hundreds if not thousands of messages flow in every day. They must be dealt with individually, which siphons scarce volunteer time off other tasks, and the potential costs of any mistakes (such as going off message or treating the sender less than kindly) are huge because emails can be easily forwarded to other people, including prominent bloggers and journalists that can generate bad publicity. The findings of my research indicate that most political actors across established Western democracies weigh these costs much more than any potential benefits that might come from timely responding to emails from citizens they do not know. This is consistent with previous research indicating that campaigns value maintaining control over their message more than interacting with voters. Recent news reports on how the Obama campaign used sophisticated database techniques to carve out specific niches of the electorate and reach them with highly personalized messages confirms that political organizations are more at ease when using the web for messaging that they can fully control.