How Analyzing Candidate Emails Became a Study of their Supporters

Text by BRADY EVAN WALKER | Design by Rachel Eunjin Kim


We gathered 6,000 campaign emails from Hillary and Trump from January 1 to August 31, 2016. (No, this isn’t a Wikileaks thing.) Using our neural network classifier, we identified and categorized the emotional elements of each subject line.

Each was assigned one or more tags indexing different types of impressions across five basic emotional categories and 15 distinct emotions, as illustrated in Persado’s Wheel of Emotions.

The Wheel of Emotions describes the emotional drivers used in marketing. Our team found they didn’t need to adjust their approach with politics. The candidates are quite clearly using email as a marketing channel with basic KPIs, like conversions (soliciting campaign contributions, selling merchandise) or raising awareness.

Persado’s data scientists and linguistic experts identified stylistic indicators, common patterns, and other semantic elements that would be relevant data points.

Our analysis of emotional content focused on two things:

  • Frequency: to understand how candidates used email during the period observed
  • Correlation to Response Rates: to see what the Hillary and Trump supporters seem to be responding to and observe potential similarities and differences


Though they’re equally mired in controversy, it’s obvious to anyone paying even the haziest of attentions to the election coverage that these are two very different people with different ideals and audiences.

But when it comes to how they approached the spectrum of available emotions, they seemed to take the same basic template with the exception of Joy and Anticipation switching places. (To reduce confusion and overwhelm, we simplified the results from the 15 distinct emotions down to the five umbrella categories.)

Their similarities provide a surprising study, not of the candidates but of their subscribers.

Though the candidates used the same emotions with almost identical frequency, the emotions that yielded the highest response rates from their respective supporters could hardly be more different.

Note how differently the separate audiences responded to, for instance, Fear and Trust.

BREAKING: Trump Supporters Endorse Fear

Trump’s audience can generally be lumped into a category that is not on Obama’s side. Eliciting Fear in their minds by evoking four (or even eight) more years of a similar administration and whatever perceived downfalls it might have isn’t a stretch because it’s so top of mind. Having in his back pocket that same audience’s distaste for Bill doesn’t hurt either.

As in life, Trump was more emphatic via email. Capitalization of entire words or phrases showed up in 8% of his subject lines.


This was a main element driving attention to his emails, generating an average 22% open rate.

Exclamatory words or phrases and brief, emotionally-charged introductory clauses were similarly effective for Trump.


BREAKING: Big Endorsement

When using these kinds of words and phrases, the open rate jumped from an average 18% for all of his email to 29%.

A surprising difference was that via email he was more positive than Hillary. His supporters, however, weren’t nearly as positive, being far more responsive to negative emotions (Fear [Guilt, Urgency, & Anxiety]) than Hillary’s.   

I’m With Her, You, I, We, & Me

Hillary, on the other hand, has been bombarded from all sides as untrustworthy, so any reassurance to her base that she is in fact a candidate to Trust makes sense as the most effective communication.

Though Hillary’s subject lines were more emotionally neutral (Anticipation [Encouragement, Curiosity, Challenge]) than Trump’s, her supporters responded better to positive emotions (Trust [Safety, Gratitude, Intimacy] and Pride [Luck, Exclusivity, Intimacy]).

Hillary’s campaign made a greater effort toward Intimacy (which falls under Trust): 45% of her subject lines included both the words “I” and “you.”

I’d love to meet you, {Name}

You and I are together in this

I’m so glad you’re on this team

Note how Trump’s 3rd most frequent word was “me,” which ranked 8th for Hillary. Her 3rd most frequent word was “we.”

Emo-Gate 2016

Compared to the top emotions we see in our clients’ campaigns, we found some differences in how political audiences respond to emotional language. But our emotional ranking is far closer to the political response rate than what the candidates sent.

We know from thousands of experiments that emotional language is the main driver in audience response. A systematic awareness of the emotions you stir with something as “simple” as a subject line is deceptively complex. 

With such insight, the candidates would have increased open rates over time. With higher open rates, they would have garnered more campaign donations and merchandise conversions. These things do not an election make, but they sure make it easier.

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