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

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