TOPICS > Politics

Why Obama Thinks You Would Care About a Dinner With Sarah Jessica Parker

July 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of an ongoing series on social media and politics, Ray Suarez and journalists Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz of discuss how campaigns send targeted emails, and what happens to politicians' deleted tweets.

RAY SUAREZ: And we continue our regular look at the campaign as it plays out in social media and on the Web.

For that, we’re joined again by two journalists from the new website Daily Download.

Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief, formerly with USA Today Live and Gannett Broadcasting. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

And, Howie, this week, we’re going to look at some fresh reporting from ProPublica.

HOWARD KURTZ: This is the award-winning investigative website, Ray, that asks its readers to send in examples of fund-raising emails they got from the presidential campaign.

It turns out campaigns now know so much about you from the use of technology — and President Obama’s campaign is particularly good at this — that it comes up with — they can come up with five, six, seven different versions of targeted to very specific types of donors or potential donors.

LAUREN ASHBURN: For example, if you go to ProPublica’s website, you can go the Message Machine, which right now is sort of in a beta test, but will be unveiled very soon, next week.

You can go to “Before Midnight Tonight,” which was an email sent out by Michelle Obama.

HOWARD KURTZ: I got that one. I got a lot of emails from Barack as well.


LAUREN ASHBURN: Didn’t he say to you, hey, friend?

HOWARD KURTZ: Yes. We’re very tight.



This one says Barack is so grateful to everyone’s who has got his back, he’d like to sit down with each of you and personally thank you. If you go to the next one, take a look, the red is what’s deleted. And here it is, the green is the new piece here. So it now says Sarah Jessica Parker is a loving mom, incredibly hard worker, a great role model.

So they tailor each of these emails to different segments of the population.

HOWARD KURTZ: There are some versions of this fund-raising pitch that mention that Mariah Carey is giving a concert afterwards. There were others that mentioned that Anna Wintour, the fashion editor and mogul, will be attending the dinner. So. . .

LAUREN ASHBURN: And there was a video from Sarah Jessica Parker as well.

HOWARD KURTZ: So they are tweaking this constantly.

RAY SUAREZ: There have long been tailored messages that go out to individual donors. But it seems like this is a refinement that is done using computer analysis of language. It’s — it takes it another step further. It’s robot-generated.

LAUREN ASHBURN: It’s a very complicated algorithm.

They used to just use all of the information that they would get from to donors and supporters and send direct mail. Well, now you can know your zip code, you know what people buy, you know what people like, you know where they live, you know their subdivision. And it’s much easier to target.

HOWARD KURTZ: I’m sure the campaigns would object to the notion that just robots are doing this, because somebody has got to make the strategic decisions.

And the fact that they do, in the age of Google, know so much about your purchasing habits, for example, male, female, demographic information — And Mitt Romney’s — they don’t on ProPublica have as many examples from Mitt Romney’s fund-raising. But while Obama — team Obama is using Sarah Jessica Parker and George Clooney dinners as fund-raising tools, Romney has just sent out an email, or his campaign has, inviting people to win a day on the road with Mitt if you contribute a few dollars.

LAUREN ASHBURN: And they had done that with President Obama. You could have dinner with both the president and Michelle. So, that was something that was done a few months ago. This is sort of a copycat exercise.

RAY SUAREZ: And it doesn’t really cost much more, unlike campaigns that really had to watch the mailing costs and watch the production costs. . .

HOWARD KURTZ: You had to have actual people who lick the envelopes and put on stamps. Now you — there’s a button and you can message millions of people.

LAUREN ASHBURN: What I find interesting about this is that President Obama, the campaign, the people, the PACs that are surrounding him are doing this at a much greater rate than President Obamney and the folks who are supporting him.

HOWARD KURTZ: Than Mitt Romney, yes.


LAUREN ASHBURN: Yes, that’s right.

HOWARD KURTZ: Romney — Obama has had a lot more time to get ready for the general election, because Romney of course had to win the nomination first.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, also making interesting news this week, what to do once you have sent out a message that you have now had second thoughts about.


LAUREN ASHBURN: Before you go like this, you should probably hit delete.

That’s happening for even people who are in Congress. The site Politwoops, deleted tweets from politicians, is a fascinating look at what people are saying. Oh, no, bring that back.

HOWARD KURTZ: I didn’t know you could delete tweets, but you would think that they would vanish forever, but no.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Dennis Ross, Republican, now, this is right after the health care decision from the Supreme Court last Thursday morning. “Individual mandate ruled unconstitutional, let freedom ring.”

HOWARD KURTZ: And he had plenty of company, if you go to the next one.

LAUREN ASHBURN: If you do. He had company from Tom Rooney. “Breaking, Supreme Court strikes individual mandate. Great news for American people. Victory for Constitution. #Obamacare.”

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you can understand this in part, because at first the story was reported incorrectly. And they’re in real time very quickly responding to an incorrectly reported story.

HOWARD KURTZ: CNN and FOX News got the story wrong, so these congressmen or people on their behalf very instantly tweeting victory because the Supreme Court struck down, which of course it didn’t, the health care ruling.

And then on one of these, it says deleted two minutes later. So they are very sensitive to real-time events. And coming back to fund-raising, both the Romney and Obama campaigns sending out fund-raising letters around the Supreme Court decision, making — arguing different points, of course, almost in real time.

RAY SUAREZ: But now there are so many people who are associated, but not officially part of campaigns, all furiously sending out opinions, ideas, impressions, repeating jokes that they heard, off-color or otherwise.

The idea of a pipeline with just a crude messaging going through it seems to be dead.


People are very quick to make decisions, especially about news that is that important and that timely. And you can see politicians even fall for it, making that very first — they want to be first in support of it. They want to get the news out to their constituents.

HOWARD KURTZ: Just like journalists.

And at the same time, we’re now drowning in all this information. So it’s interesting that we have websites like Politwoops or ProPublica to track the way these messages change and sometimes get pulled back after the fact.

RAY SUAREZ: When you decide that something you have sent out was kind of a bad idea, it lives on, no matter what you try to do, doesn’t it?

LAUREN ASHBURN: That’s what’s interesting.

I mean, my mother always used to say don’t write anything down you don’t want to see on the front page of The Reading Eagle, where I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania. The same thing is true. You often think, oh, you’re typing it into this sort of big black hole. If you delete it, it’s gone.

HOWARD KURTZ: Today’s equivalent is, you better hesitate on hitting the send button.

RAY SUAREZ: Howard, Lauren, good to see you both.