Going Mobile: Texting and Twittering in the New Ground Game


Text messaging via mobile phones could be an important element of the Election Day ground game - assuming the technology works at crunch time. Texting and cell-phone calls are increasingly important as a growing number of people eschew landlines in favor of mobile devices - a trend that is especially popular among key Obama constituencies, including young voters, African-Americans, and Hispanics. (The lack of landlines among some groups also may skew opinion polls, which don't use cell numbers).

"Texting is more of a person-to-person contact than emails or social networking," says Kerra Bolton, communications director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, which has a text program of its own.

Cell phones have long proved effective at mobilizing voters in other counties, but they had been missing in action in U.S. elections. That changed this year, as both parties began compiling mobile contact information and using it to reach likely voters. Mobile devices have been useful in turning out crowds for Republican campaign events, and the plan is to replicate those results on Election Day, says Republican National Committee eCampaign director Cyrus Krohn.

A watershed moment came when Obama promised to announce his vice-presidential pick to anyone who registered with the campaign. The announcement was scooped by the media, but the campaign got what it was after: copious contact information, including a reported 2.9 million text addresses. That could make a big difference when it comes time to get out the vote.

The problem is that a lot of people didn't get their VP texts in a timely way, or at all. While the viral nature of text messages, which can be forwarded easily, means that a text campaign can succeed even if the original broadcast fails to reach every recipient, missing key volunteers could hamper the effectiveness of the effort.

Mass-distributed texts exchanged via "shortcodes" - those nifty little addresses that marketers use instead of full phone numbers - work differently from the person-to-person texts you send to your kids, says Shlomi Gian, director of mobile business development for Keynote Systems Inc., a testing and measurement company in San Mateo, CA. Keynote found weaknesses in the Obama campaign's mobile network when it ran independent tests of the service.

Shortcode texting involves firms that provide applications, which work with other companies known as aggregators. SinglePoint, the aggregator used for the Biden announcement, did not comment in time for our deadline. Alykhan Govani, North American CEO for another large aggregator, MX Telecom, says mass-texting on Election Day is "very feasible. It's about planning and infrastructure being done correctly. Three million is a large number, but we have clients doing blasts that size all the time." Govani echoed that belief.

Cost remains a concern, says Krohn. "It is still not inexpensive to send text messages to huge audiences," he says. The RNC is using targeted outreach through the fall, with plans for "fullout blasts later in the game." Looking ahead, he says mobile will be the hotbed technology of 2012.

Another potentially-powerful technology is micro-messaging, as provided by the popular Twitter service or perhaps its newer competitor, Yammer. Republican tech strategist Patrick Ruffini says intelligence broadcast via such services could be valuable on Election Day in terms of modeling turnout and reporting problems at polling stations. Of course Twitter, too, has had its share of operational problems at scale.

What's clear is that new technologies continue to change politics. Democratic strategist Joe Trippi says that popular culture often leads the way, making people comfortable with tools that campaigns later adopt. "[Howard] Dean was helped by people having used their credit cards on eBay or Amazon. That had to happen first. With text, it was American Idol. Millions of people have voted for their favorites on television, so they're not shy about using the same technology in a real election."

Part One: The Ground Game: Open Source vs Closed. Part Two: Local Area Networks: How the Obama Campaign Works on the Ground. Part Three: Connecting the Campaign: How the Democrats Built Their Network.