Blog Post

What Obama's Text Message Campaign Reveals

Barack Obama’s now-famous text-message announcement of his VP pick reveals something about the candidate that should really worry the Republicans. What it reveals is not that he’s a smart technologist. If he was, he would have known that sending 10 million SMS messages at the same time is pretty much guaranteed not to work; it’s not designed for that. What it does reveal is that this is probably the smartest marketing campaign we’ve seen in decades.

It’s well known that Obama’s campaign is sophisticated about collecting and cross-referencing voter contacts and using this information to identify two especially important populations: new voters and persuadable voters. Most elections are won by fewer than 10 percentage points. Real blowouts are very rare and usually only happen when a popular incumbent is running for re-election. So the game is all about finding the 5 to 10 percent of the population that can swing the election.

What impressed me about the text-message campaign was that it was an effective device for collecting millions of voter contacts, while also signaling that Obama connects with young people. This won’t do much to persuade 50-something independents in the Midwest, but this is the type of marketing campaign that will get young people to register and to get to the polls. Here are just a few examples of things the campaign can now do with these phone numbers:

  • Conduct non-intrusive surveys (e.g. are you registered to vote yet? what zip code are you in?)
  • On a state-by-state basis, send reminder messages about the cutoff dates for voter registration and link to registration forms
  • On a state-by-state basis, tell people to mail in their ballots to vote absentee
  • Invite people to campaign events in their area code
  • Remind people to get out and vote on Election Day (believe it or not, some people forget, although you’d need to be hiding in a cave to miss this one)
  • Promote down-ballot candidates on a zipcode-by-zipcode basis

The first two items alone are probably worth a lot of votes. It’s easy to miss the cutoff dates for voter registration, and this is a simple way to make sure everyone gets registered in time. Encouraging people to vote by mail is another good way to increase participation, especially among populations that find it difficult to take off work to go to the polls.

Elections are all about turnout, which is all about voter contact and engagement. This means different things for different demographics. Among older voters, more traditional campaign tactics are key. Among minority voters, churches and unions are important “sales channels.” This is the first election I can recall where a candidate has really worked to connect with young voters, who are not accessible via the traditional channels.

I think that’s why youth turnout is historically weak. Partly it’s apathy, but it’s mostly because they’re harder to reach, which the Obama campaign seems to have figured out this time around. Since most people who registered to get the VP announcement were under 40, this should be an opportunity to move the needle a couple of percentage points.

Will he be a good president? I don’t know — you never really do until they get in — but I’ve been impressed by the campaign, and I am interested to see how they run the remaining two months. The Republicans should be worried. John McCain is a good candidate, but his campaign seems tired. He may win a poll among voters today, but that won’t matter if the Obama campaign succeeds in bringing several million new voters out to cast a ballot in November. It’s a tight race, and like in 2000, it will ultimately be decided by who shows up.

photo via flickr courtesy litherland

41 Responses to “What Obama's Text Message Campaign Reveals”

  1. Subject: Fwd: This is a MUST READ ! !

    Especially the parts about McCain’s views on nuking Iraq if it would have been in his power (and wiping out additional cities in Japan during WW2.) I”M SCARED . . .

    Check out this encounter with McCain. It was sent to us by Kathy Sreedhar whom you might remember from our wedding at Devigarh. Kathy is a very credible Washington DC resident and her contact information is at the bottom of this email.

    My Holiday with McCain

    It was just before John McCain’s last run at the presidential nomination in 2000 that my husband and I vacationed in Turtle Island in Fiji with John McCain, Cindy, and their children, including Bridget (their adopted Bangladeshi child).It was not our intention, but it was our misfortune to be in close quarters with John McCain for almost a week since Turtle Island has a small number of bungalows and their focus on communal meals force all vacationers who are there at the same time to get to know each other intimately.

    He arrived at our first group meal and started reading quotes from a pile of William Faulkner books with a forest of Post-Its sticking out of them. As an English Literature major myself, my first thought was “if he likes this so much,why hasn’t he memorized any of this yet?” I soon realized that McCain actually thought we had come on vacation to be a volunteer audience for his “readings” which then became a regular part of each meal. Out of politeness, none of the vacationers initially protested at this intrusion into their blissful holiday, but people’s buttons definitely got pushed as the readings continued day after day.

    Unfortunately this was not his only contribution to our mealtime entertainment.He waxed on during one meal about how Indo-Chine women had the best figures and that our American corn-fed women just couldn’t meet up to this standard. He also made it a point that all of us should stop Cindy fro m having dessert as her weight was too high and made a few comments to Amy, the 25 year old wife of the honeymooning couple from Nebraska that she should eat less as she needed to lose weight.

    McCain’s appreciation of the beauty of Asian women was so great that David the American economist had to move his Thai wife to the other side of the table from McCain as McCain kept aggressively flirting with and touching her.

    Needless to say I was irritated at his large ego, and his rude behavior towards his wife and other women, but decided he must have some redeeming qualities as he had adopted a handicapped child from Bangladesh.I asked him about this one day and his response was shocking -“Oh, that was Cindy’s idea – I didn’t have anything to do with it. She just went and adopted this thing without even asking me. You can’t imagine how people stare when I wheel this ugly, black thing around in a shopping cart in Arizona . No, it wasn’t my idea at all.”

    I actively avoided McCain after that, but unfortunately one day he engaged me in a political discussion which soon got us on the topic of the active US bombing of Iraq at that time. I was shocked when he said “if I was in charge, I would nuke Iraq to teach them a lesson”. Given McCain’s personal experience with the horrors of war I had expected a more balanced point of view. I commented on the tragic consequences of the nuclear attacks on Japan during WWII – but no, he was not to be dissuaded. He went on to say that if it was up to him he would have dropped many more nuclear bombs on Japan . I rapidly extricated myself from this conversation as I could tell that his experience being tortured as a POW didn’t seem to have mellowed out his perspective but rather had made him more aggressive, and vengeful towards the world.

    My final encounter with McCain was on the morning that he was leaving Turtle Island . Amy and I were happily eating pancakes when McCain arrived and told Amy that she shouldn’t be having pancakes because she needed to lose weight. Amy burst into tears at this abusive comment. I felt fiercely protective of Amy and immediately turned to McCain and told him to leave her alone. He became very angry and abusive towards me, and said “don’t you know who I am” and I looked him in the face and said “yes, you are the biggest asshole I have ever met” and headed back to m y cabin. I am happy to say that later that day when I arrived at lunch I was given a standing ovation by all the guests for having stood up to McCain’s bullying.

    Although I have shared my McCain story informally with friends, this is the first time I am mak ing this public. I almost did so in 2000, when McCain first announced his bid for the Republican nomination but it soon became apparent that George Bush was the shoo-in candidate and so I did not act then. However, now that there is a very real possibility that McCain could be elected as our next president, I feel it is my duty as an American citizen to share this story. I can’t imagine a more scary outcome for America than that this abusive, aggressive man should lead our nation. I have observed him in intimate surroundings as he really is, not how the media portrays him to be. If his attitudes toward women, and his treatment of his own family are even a small indicator of his real personality, then I shudder to think what will happen to America were he to be elected as our President.

    Kathy Sreedhar, Director
    UU Holdeen India Program
    666 11th Street, NW, Su ite 800
    Washington , DC 20001
    Telephone: 202.393.2255 x16
    Fax: 202.393.5494

  2. A followup text was sent to the same registrants, asking for Name and City. This provides ver specific information we can use to mobilized GOTV efforts.

    The Obama campaign has a specific ground game unlike any ever used before by Democrats. It uses targeting and other high tech gegaws, but it also utilizes good old fashioned on-ground effort in battlegrounds like GA coupled with a specific targeting of the new registrants and youth in general. See Iowa for a mini version of this strategy. Afterwards, Mark Penn said ” I guess we underestimated the youth turnout” Ya Think? And DR. Ted; you can only steal an election if it’s close, and right now, it won’t be.

  3. Rebecca

    Obama has definitely shown that he is “with it” in terms of technology and Web 2.0. However, it remains to be seen whether or not he will inspire young Americans to go to the polls and if that will help him win the presidential election. I recently read an article written by a Public Relations writer about this topic. You should take a look at it.

  4. You mention that young voters don’t vote for apathy and because they are hard to reach. I agree with the apathy part, but I can’t swallow the hard to reach part.

    I voted in my first presidential election in 1988. No one called me and told me to do it. As a matter of fact, I usually don’t cooperate with people who call me regardng who I am voting for or whether or not I will vote. I believe it is a personal thing. I usually lie and tell them what they want to hear or simpy hang up.

    I definitely applaud the Obama campaign for pushing the technology evelope. I just don’t think it will have a significant impact. I wowrked on voter registration drives when in college. For every 1000 people we registered, we were lucky to see two or three at the polls.

    Perhaps this election will be different. Perhaps the young (under 30, not under 40) will actually mean something. I remain hopeful but unconvinced.

  5. Obama’s campaign has been very smart about its strategy and this article highlights the same. I am eager to see how Obama deals with the Internet once he’s president. He will probably be the most accessible one ever. Obama 08! Visit WHYOBAMA08.oRG!

  6. My company, Mobile Commons, has worked with Presidential candidates and the results with text messaging have been very encouraging. Namely, text messaging is the most cost effective way to get out the vote.

    What the Obama Campaign has done, as pointed out in this article, is build a massive mobile list for the most effective form of getting out the vote. They also have the option to use more conversational techniques with their messaging to increase voter engagement.

    Also, as a comment on geo-locating with mobile: it’s possible to do reverse look-ups on phone numbers and get a zip code for the billing address on the phone. Far more accurate than using something like area code.

    Mobile Commons’ blog post on Obama cites a study on the cost efficacy of different types of text messaging:

  7. Politicians are acting as an inspiration to the corporate world, when it comes to social media.

    In the corporate world, executives have been wary of social media because…people sometimes say nasty things. The one surefire way for corporations to amplify those conversations is to join them. So they, more often than not, bury their heads in the sand. They’re quite scared of social media, still.

    Politicians on the other hand know that negativity comes with the territory. They are more inclined to take it on the chin and respond. So, it seems the top politicians have been a little more accepting ot social media and are a step ahead of the corporate world.

    Once the dust settles after the election, I think the corporate will be more likely to embrace social media.

    Mark Brooks

  8. What do you mean “he would have known that sending 10 million SMS messages at the same time is pretty much guaranteed not to work; it’s not designed for that.” Whether it was designed for that or not, it can be done and it is done often, even in third world countries…

  9. “Since most people who registered [were] under 40, this should be an opportunity to move the [Youth Turnout] needle a couple of percentage points.”

    Under 40?

  10. exactly! i have riffed on this very same topic. allow me to share the link here:

    in addition, aside from Obama’s x-factor, the Triple O of the Obama campaign has been instrumental in this election. see:

    SMS is a powerful political tool that has yet been fully utilized here in America (the Obama campaign is leading the way). the problem in the U.S. is that SMS is so expensive compared to Europe and Asia.


  11. They have area code information from the phone #s they collected–not accurate for *all* cell phone users but probably so for the vast majority. They could look at which area codes are under-represented in their phone # list and increase efforts in those parts of the country. eh?


    sms can handle that amount of data, if the operators are willing to take the cost of building the infrastructure.

    but sadly this is way beyond any traffic peak (like say new years), and so building infrastructure that can take something that may only happen ones every 4 years do not fit into any cost/benefit calculation what so ever…

  13. very insightful… i hadn’t thought of the future utility of having that contact information. it did cost over a million dollars for them to send those messages out. either way, however, the info could be passed on to other people/organizations that obama supports. (obama ’08!)

  14. Targeting by zip code is very tough to do. Their data isn’t that good on this. They just asked people to text VP to 62262 (i.e. they only know the phone number) they don’t have the ability to cross-reference to the owner’s demographics. I think they would have been much smarter to connect the cell # to their profiles on MyBO (which I noticed they now do, but that’s not how most of the people signed up). My guess is they’ll start driving more people to add their cell # to their profiles online (then they’ll be able to do all that you mentioned).