Text messaging via mobile phones could be an important element of the Obama campaign's ground game, provided the technology works at crunch time. Texting and cell phone calls are critical as an increasing 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.
"Texting is more of a person-to-person contact than e-mails or social networking," says Kerra Bolton, the communica-tions director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, which has its own texting program.
Cell phones have proved effective at mobilizing voters in other countries, but they had been missing in action in U.S. elections. That changed this summer, when Obama promised to announce his vice presidential pick to anyone who registered with the campaign. The announcement of Joe Biden 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 text message 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, a testing and measurement company. Keynote found weaknesses in the Obama campaign's mobile network when it ran independent tests of the service.
In shortcode texting, firms that provide applications 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, who is North American CEO for another large aggregator, MX Telecom, says mass-texting on election day is very feasible. "It's about planning and infra-structure being done cor-rectly," Govani says. "Three million is a large number, but we have clients who are doing blasts that size all the time."
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 has had its own share of operational problems at scale.
What is clear is that new technologies continue to change politics. 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," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "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."