What Next for Obama's Text-Messaging Database?
By Jose Antonio Vargas
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk Martin walked so Barack could run Barack is running so our children can fly."
That 86-letter text message is being forwarded from cellphone to cellphone. It began among African Americans then went viral, posted in various blogs. Exactly when it was first sent, who sent it and how many times it has been forwarded, we don't know.
Another unknown, and a hot topic among the political digiterati: How many cellphone numbers, through its nearly 18-month-old text messaging program, are in Sen. Barack Obama's database?
Scott Goodstein, the text guru who runs the program, declines to say. Same goes for his boss, Joe Rospars, who oversees Triple O, Obama's online operation. But since the campaign has been tireless in collecting their supporters' cell numbers -- they introduced Sen. Joe Biden as Obama's vice presidential choice by text -- many guess that it's in the millions.
The thing about texting is that it's not free; prices vary from per-text charges to monthly subscriptions. Also, unlike with e-mails and phone calls, which often come unsolicited and unwelcomed, you have to opt in to receive text messages. In other words, you receive the text because you want to be texted. This combination makes texting, for many, more personal and immediate than phone calls and e-mails. Some people only text with their close friends and relatives.
Still, alongside YouTube and Facebook, texting is one of the big X factors of this presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain doesn't have a text program, though the National College Republican Committee, which is campaigning for him, is experimenting with texting at various schools. Members of the College Republican group at Old Dominion University, the largest school in the voter-rich region of Hampton Roads, for example, received this text a few weeks ago: "Register 2 vote @dmv or local library. 2 wks left, n it takes 5 min, tell your fam n friends, practice your right 2 democracy."
Outside of the campaigns, nonpartisan groups targeting the under-30 electorate have used text messaging to register voters and turn them out on Tuesday. Rock the Vote, which registered more than 2.4 million young voters this cycle, teamed up with AT&T and launched a nationwide mobile campaign in mid-December, in time for the Iowa caucuses.
The 25-year-old Student PIRGs, the granddaddy of youth mobilizing groups, married text with its on-the-ground field operation. Its 85 staffers and 2,000 volunteers, scattered in 150 campuses in 20 states, asked students to text "studentvote" to the number 41411; students then immediately received a text that read: "Don't forget to register to vote on studentvote.org." According to a study released by PIRGS (which partnered with CREDO Mobile and the University of Notre Dame) a few days ago, texting young voters increased turnout on Super Tuesday by 4.6 percentage points. That day, when 24 states (and American Samoa) held their primaries and caucuses, PIRGS and CREDO sent text message "get out to vote" reminders to 3,600 randomly selected young voters.
But even officials at groups such as Rock the Vote and PIRGs have been surprised by the breadth and scope of Obama's texting program.
In August, Obama introduced Obama Mobile, a site where users can access the latest Obama news and download videos on their cellphones -- a first for a presidential candidate. Two months later, in another electoral first, the campaign rolled out a free iPhone application that supporters can use to organize their address book by state and make it easier for them to make calls. Within the first week, the free application was the eighth-most-downloaded on iTunes. As of Sunday night, it ranked No. 50, ahead of AOL Instant Messaging and behind iBaseball.
Supporters receive texts specific to their state. Voters living in states that allow early voting received this text on Friday at 5:41 p.m. EST: "Vote for Barack NOW. Early vote locations are open until 7 pm today. Find your location at VoteForChange.com or call 877-235-6226." Supporters in Virginia got this text at 11:04 a.m. Saturday: "Help make history. Volunteer on Election Day to help Barack win VA! We still need to fill many 2 hour shifts. REPLY with V2 your NAME ZIP (ex: V2 John 22030)." Identical, but state-specific, versions of the text were sent in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Colorado.
The program is not without its kinks. Many had to wait minutes, if not hours, to get the news that Biden was Obama's running mate. At 8:24 p.m. Eastern time, supporters in New Mexico were told that polls open at 7 a.m. Five minutes later, another text arrived, this one reading: "CORRECTION: Vote for Barack Tuesday! Polls are open in NM from 7am-7pm. For location info visit: NM.BarackObama.com or call 877-662-4264. Please fwd this msg."
Notice how the text, filled with information, is asked to be forwarded.
"In terms of both marketing and execution, the Obama campaign has been pretty brilliant in their use of text messaging, and I was quite impressed that they also evolved over the campaign," Tim Chambers, co-founder of Media 50 Group, a start-up that focuses on the mobile political space, and co-author of a study called "Mobile Media in 21st Century Politics," told The Trail. "But I was equally if not more impressed by their moving beyond text messaging with their mobile Web site, and into their native iPhone application. In each case, they were breaking new ground for political mobile action, writing some of the rules as they went, and foreshadowing what I think will be to come."
Posted at 11:37 PM ET on Nov 2, 2008
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