I’m a digital hoarder. It’s not something I’m proud of, but when the cost of storing an email or file is so cheap I don’t see any reason to re-examine my “just in case I need it later” policy. As a result, I’ve accumulated about 53,000 emails since I signed up for my current Gmail account back in 2008.

Recently, however, my free account started ticking toward 100% capacity. The idea of actually paying Google to increase my inbox capacity and maintain all my precious emails caused me to do some soul-searching. I felt like even a few dollars a month was opening a door I wouldn’t be able to close. So, with a heavy heart, I started to clean out my inbox and permanently send thousands of emails to the great spam folder in the sky.

 A visual representation of my email inbox. I swear I know where everything is.

A visual representation of my email inbox. I swear I know where everything is.

While deciding which emails to keep and which had to go, I realized that some of the emails I ignored on a daily basis became interesting when looked at over a long period of time.

One such collection were emails that I had received from BarackObama.com, the website used by President Barack Obama’s two campaigns and the political apparatus he has maintained. With Obama’s time in office coming to an end next month, I thought examining these emails might be a different way of looking back over the time he’s been in office.

The Data

The email data includes 1,945 emails sent from info@barackobama.com between January 20, 2009 and November 30, 2016. I suppose this wasn't the first time I was inspired to do some spring cleaning, because there is a seven month gap in the data from December 2010 through June 2011.

This dataset includes emails I got from the Obama campaign in that time period, but does not represent every email sent by the campaign. I am a registered Democrat living in Pennsylvania. I was also a campaign staffer, a donor, and a volunteer. All of these factors would have dictated the specific emails I got. Additionally, the campaign most likely A/B tested language so there are probably multiple versions out there of the emails I was sent.

The Method

I exported all the emails to a .mbox file from Gmail and sorted through them using a series of Python scripts I wrote. Charts were put together in Excel.

The Results

Who Sends the Emails

Campaigns will send emails “from” prominent individuals to get your attention. Maybe this time Barack Obama really is emailing me looking for my insight. Better open the email just in case!

I got emails from 139 different names, but almost 60% of all the emails came from just 10:

The number 1 sender was Organizing for Action. OFA is the name of Obama’s political operation that organized supporters around the president’s policy initiatives. Next was "Obama" followed by "Mitch Stewart". Stewart served as the Battleground States Director during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Since I live in a battleground state, I probably heard from him more than average.

The dataset starts after the 2008 campaign ended, so any of the Obama staffers on the list are either from Organizing for America, or the 2012 campaign.

When They Send the Emails

When an email is sent can determine how likely it is to be read. Emails that arrive at the wrong time risk getting buried and never opened. Campaign digital directors need to pick the right day of the week, as well as the right time of day, to ensure they maximize their exposure.

On average, I got 22 emails a month from the Obama campaign. This includes high-volume periods right before elections, as well as the lull after Election Day when voters are looking for a break. In October 2012, I got 96 emails from the campaign, while I only got 8 that December.

The campaign began building for the president’s reelection very early on, with the number of emails they sent steadily increasing from right after his first inauguration through Election Day 2012. There are three spikes that line up with the 2010 primary election, the 2010 general election, and his official campaign announcement.

After the election in 2012 the number of emails sent has been trending down, but there are spikes every 3 months. These quarterly spikes coincide with Federal Election Commission deadlines and indicate that the President’s fundraising operation is very much alive.

More than half of the emails were sent on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The late afternoon has been the preferred time of day.

What They are Saying

More important than email timing is the actual content of the emails. This data gives us a really interesting look at how the tone of the Obama campaign evolved over the course of his presidency. I grouped the email messages by month and ran a basic sentiment analysis on the text to give an average of how positive or negative the campaign's language was at that time. Sentiment is represented by a number between -1 and 1. The higher the number, the more positive the language. I've marked the "average sentiment" in the chart below with a dotted line.

Generally, the campaign kept a positive tone. Especially during Obama's first term, his campaign's tone was fairly steady. Starting in 2014, however, almost every month saw a pretty dramatic swing. During these months, Obama's team were pushing issues like paid family leave and introducing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The coverage of these issues became highly emotional, and the campaign's language followed suit.

During this period, the campaign also had its most positive months. Topping the list is May 2015, during which the campaign began aggressively pushing paid family leave around mother's day, and continued that theme all month.

After securing the Democratic nomination for President in July 2016, Secretary Hillary Clinton's campaign began airing negative ads attacking the disposition and qualifications of her opponent, Donald Trump. The ads painted a dire scenario in which Trump was elected president suddenly making his thin skin and penchant for late-night twitter wars an issue of national security. The Obama team reinforced this message.

Additionally, the Senate had continued to block Obama's final nominee to the Supreme Court. The frustration was evident in a number of emails encouraging voters to contact their senators. "Fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Just do it." reads one email from September 2016.

And then there was November, 2016.

When Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 2010 there was hardly any downward movement in tone at all. There was a downward spike in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate, but November 2016 was different. With Trump's victory on November 8 the emails took their negativity to a new level using language like "disillusioned", "cynical", and "frustrated". Even as the campaign tried to encourage activists to continue volunteering (and donating!), the emotional drop in tone matched the one felt by Democrats and progressives everywhere. How, or if, that tone changes over the last two months of Obama's time in office will be interesting to watch. 


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