How Text Messages Lead to Votes


13 min reading time

Text messages leading to a ballot box

A close look at the use of SMS over the American campaign trail

With the French presidential elections so close (the first round begins April 23rd), politics has taken over the water-cooler talk in our Paris offices.  This inevitably got me thinking about the role of text messages in campaign strategies – and the intersection of digital media and politics more broadly. Being American, my own point of reference was the recent U.S. presidential elections, and all the campaigning novelties they entailed. Putting personal political views aside, I decided to outline how these different campaigns utilized text messaging to various effect.

Below are some pitfalls and recommendations inspired by these campaigns.  Hopefully this will serve as a quick guide for anyone interested in using SMS to do community organizing, politically motivated or otherwise.

Using technology to drive face-to-face interactions: the Obama campaign

Screen shot of Obama's 2008 website

The 2008 Obama campaign’s digital strategy focused on driving participation at in-person events.

You’ve probably heard how skilfully the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaign used digital media. However, don’t be fooled – the real power behind the campaigns wasn’t in amassing likes, comments and followers in a purely digital space.  As campaign organizer Lex Paulson explained at the Dojo event, Collective Intelligence and Automation in Politics, the Obama campaign didn’t use technology to replace physical, face-to-face interactions, but instead used it to enhance them. 

Lex explained that Obama was able to win so many electors, swing states, and ultimately the presidency – twice – because his campaigns made the volunteer their unit of organization. While most campaigns rely on volunteers for ‘menial’ tasks, Obama truly trusted his volunteers to work in self-sufficient units fully versed in the campaign’s policy issues.  In other words, they shifted from a centralized organization, which relied on top down directives, to a distributed one, which relied on self-sufficient, knowledgeable volunteer groups. In this system, volunteers were treated like educated ambassadors, not robots.  The campaign’s digital strategy was then built around driving participation at debate-watching parties, door-to-door visits or any other number of physical events manned by these motivated volunteers.

Text messages were folded right into this “events-first” digital strategy. As my friend and Obama field organizer James Greene explained about a rally in Iowa, “once a list of text-able phone numbers was built, we would text those numbers to outreach voters for events and election day reminders and information. On the balance, our text message efforts were a supplement to traditional voter outreach tactics, namely phone calls and door-to-door canvassing.” Face-to-face exchanges are so crucial because this is where volunteers can engage most persuasively with the public: as Lex explained, it takes 189 emails, 35 calls but only 15 doors knocked to convince a new voter. This is also how volunteers can really understand and report back what’s on the minds of the electorate.  For a campaign, this sort of data is gold.

Show me the money: using texts to fundraise

Grassroots giving is powering this campaign,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a statement. “Accepting small donations by text message will help us engage even more grassroots supporters who want to play a role by donating whatever they can afford to the campaign — and get the president reelected in November.”

Mashable, August 2012

Just because a digital strategy has a main focus, doesn’t mean that ancillary initiatives don’t exist alongside it. Gathering donations is a big part of any campaign, and the 2012 race between Obama and Romney was no exception.  Indeed, the former was actually the first American campaign to work with telecom operators to make donations via text possible, thanks to the permission of The Federal Election Commission (FEC).  Naturally, the Commission threw in several provisos: in addition to regulations surrounding donation limits, short codes, foreign nationals, and other legalities, the FEC regulations stipulate what’s acceptable process for mobile donations:

“When a wireless user sends the mobile-originated message to a candidate’s short code, the connection aggregator must respond to (a) confirm the user’s intent to make a contribution that will be charged to the user’s bill, and (b) certify the user’s eligibility to make the contribution under federal campaign finance law. Examples of the certifications described at (b) that were approved by the FEC on behalf of the connection aggregator m-Qube, as well as additional explanation by the FEC, follow:

  • To give $[5-10-15-20] to Romney reply YES. U certify ur 18+ & donating with own funds, not foreign national or Fed contractor. Terms Msg&Data Rates May Apply
  • To give $[5-10-15-20] to Obama reply YES. U certify ur 18+ & donating with own funds, not foreign national or Fed contractor. Terms Msg&Data Rates May Apply
  • The embedded hyperlinks within these certifications, when opened by users of smartphones, will send users to a webpage that includes an unabbreviated certification. The webpage will also explain terms such as “foreign national” and “Federal contractor”, indicate that charges will include processing fees that will reduce the amount of the contribution received by the participating federal candidate, political committee, or political party, and include all disclosures required for political fundraising solicitations.”

This process basically requires campaigns to send mobile users to a webpage via text to make the donation, (debited from their mobile bill), and include a PIN number and confirmation steps along the way.  Working with these restrictions, campaigners should be strategic in how they set up their SMS workflows: should they ask for $1 or $20 at a time?  What short code and key words should they select? Should they ask those making donations to opt-in to future communication from the candidate? How can these texts fold into larger messaging strategies?

Ad about how to donate to the Obama campaign by text message

Outreach via text: legal tightrope walk

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which became law in 1991, reflects the reality that, unlike traditional landline phones, mobile users pay for unsolicited incoming communications. With no exception for political speech, campaigns were forbidden from sending text messages to voters unless granted specific authorization to do so.”

Sasha Issenberg, Bloomberg Politics

Soliciting donations from dedicated supporters is important, but equally strategic is reaching out to apathetic, perhaps on the fence potential voters. Especially in the U.S., with the infamous electoral college system, galvanizing key demographics can make or break an election. Two campaigns made ingenious, if somewhat controversial, use of mobile apps and SMS to reap the benefits of outreach via text.

In addition to the FEC regulations, the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) prohibits businesses (or campaigns) from sending mass text messages via automated dialers to consumers who haven’t given prior consent. This would seemingly put the kibosh on any initiatives to do outreach via SMS – aside from manually texting massive numbers of people one by one, how could campaigns work with these regulations? Two mobile apps, Hustle and Megaphone, found a way.

For now, though, the key thing to understand is that both Hustle and Megaphone queue up a series of outbound contacts that volunteers can send to. Rather than text messages being sent automatically from a central sending server, each volunteer individually sends each message from his or her phone.”

David Gewirtz, ZDNet

Hustle, used to great effect by the Bernie Sanders campaign, works by letting campaign volunteers send text messages (using pre-defined templates) to queued phone numbers bought from a database (read: not opt-in). Check out the Hustle webinar for a more detailed look. As it shows, volunteers didn’t technically use an automated dialer, so they weren’t violating the TCPA ruling. Nonetheless, the queuing system (and solid campaign organization) allowed them to reach out to the public en masse.  This strategy paid off.  As a Bloomberg Politics article explained, “Sanders staff in Iowa found it much easier to recruit supporters to attend the party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner by writing them over Hustle than it was to call them with an invitation. Voters who might be wary of a phone call from an unrecognizable number, it appeared, readily opened a text message from one.”

Inspired by Hustle’s success, Hillary Clinton’s campaign used a similar strategy with an app they developed, called Megaphone.  As Jeremy Bird, a Clinton advisor, explained at the time, “It blurs the line between digital and grassroots field […] It uses text messages the way you would use the phone or a door knock.” However, this ‘blurring’ caused a bit of a stir for its perceived skirting of the TCPA regulations, especially since it was designed to feed into a larger database system. As the Bloomberg article went on to explain,

“Unlike Hustle, Megaphone was engineered to interact seamlessly with the NGP VAN interface that Democrats use to access voter data. Clinton targeters can isolate voters they want to reach with an individualized text message the same way they would select them to be contacted by a phone bank or by a canvasser—most likely for get-out-the-vote nudges close to Election Day. With information flowing both directions via API, digital conversations with voters automatically feed back into their individual records—meaning that, in theory, a text-message exchange initiated by a single organizer can be made available in perpetuity by Democratic campaigners.”

While the Clinton campaign’s use of Megaphone didn’t (to my knowledge) lead to any legal action, the Trump campaign wasn’t so lucky.  They got in some hot water for apparently sending mass texts to non opt-in citizens, leading to a class-action complaint. As Joseph, Siprut (representing the plaintiffs) passionately explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Based on the information we have at this point, we’re very confident that a violation was made and we intend to pursue it to the gates of hell.”

The lesson here is that campaigns should balance the attractiveness of using text messaging to non opt-ins with the harm it could do to perception of a candidate’s integrity. 

Using texts to ‘get personal’

We got tens of thousands of messages from people asking us ‘Where can I early vote?’ ‘What’s my polling place? ‘Do I have to bring ID?’ People are really hungry to engage with us.”

Jessica Morales Rocketto, October 2016

People are illogically attached to their mobile phones.  They tend to think of them as very personal objects, conduits to intimate conversations with friends or family, or else expressions of themselves. Using this medium to weave a story around a candidate – and make him or her more relatable – was also part of the 2016 campaign strategy.  One example among many are the series of messages from Clinton campaigner Jessica Morales Rocketto:

Twitter comments on how frequently people receive texts from the Clinton campaign

As subscribers made clear on Twitter, texts sent from “Jess” on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign really seemed to come from a friend or acquaintance.

Known as the “Hey, it’s Jess!” texts, these SMS kept subscribers up-to-date with Hillary’s every move, passed on info about rival Donald Trump, and answered questions about voting.  As subscribers made clear on Twitter, they really seemed to come from a friend or acquaintance, as if the subscriber had a mere one degree of separation between themselves and the candidate.

Similarly, Hillary herself also used the ‘in real time’ aspect of SMS to send pithy rejoinders during the Republican debate.  Subscribers received remarks like the one below:

Screen shot of Hillary Clinton texting subscribers during a Republican debate

Hillary Clinton makes use of the immediacy, ubiquity and intimacy of text messages to make her views known during a Republican debate.

Finally, Hillary also announced Tim Kaine as her running mate principally via text. This made her subscriber opt-ins feel that much more important and “close” to their chosen candidate, and was also a way of capitalizing on that heady moment by asking for a donation.

The above examples all show how the Clinton campaign used the personal nature of text messages to their advantage.  They worked to create the perception that campaign texts are intimate, friendly messages from one peer to another. This sense of intimacy is important to maintain: in our opinion, ham-handed bulk texts asking for donations or spewing political facts out of context aren’t going to garner much support. Indeed, journalists are already writing about apprehensions that newly elected president Trump may overdo his presidential rights to send mass texts in the guise of emergency messages. The bottom line is texts are always more well-received when they’re relevant, friendly and seem as if a friend could have written them.

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Texting in the context of social media

But online social media environments present new challenges. In these spaces, users can encounter statements they might consider highly contentious or extremely offensive – even when they make no effort to actively seek out this material. Similarly, political arguments can encroach into users’ lives when comment streams on otherwise unrelated topics devolve into flame wars or partisan bickering.”

Pew Research, The Political Environment on Social Media

Lastly, text messages have the particularity of being a one-to-one channel.  Compared with social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, SMS offer a certain degree of privacy. The latter two by definition display exchanges, opinions and preferences to a select community, inviting interaction and sharing, (in addition to integrating one-to-one messaging like Messenger as part of the overall platform).

Graph showing how Americans feel about politics in social media

Pew Research demonstrated that more than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating.

Keeping politically motivated exchanges private might be preferable for some – especially those who don’t habitually engage in political debate. As Pew Research demonstrated this election cycle: “More than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating.” A majority of social network users went so far as to change their viewing behaviour in some way to accommodate this stress (31% changed their settings to see fewer posts from someone, and 27% blocked or unfriended someone for these reasons).  By getting updates, asking questions or making donations via private, one-to-one channels like SMS, people can limit the stress of even interacting with politics on social media if they don’t feel so inclined.  At the least, it gives them a means to keep certain actions away from the eager eyes of their social circle.

Key takeaways

Text messages have become increasingly important in American politics over the last several election cycles. If the success of the Obama campaign is anything to go by, a best practice for text messaging is to use them to drive in-person events and maintain a distributed campaign organization strategy.  Using SMS for donations, voter outreach and making a candidate “relatable” are likewise important, so long as relevant laws are respected.  Finally, in a world where political discussions on digital media can fast become overwhelming, keeping some political engagement to a private channel like SMS may be preferable for some.