Cell Phones and Politics: Republican Mobile Activism in the 2006 Elections

For a more recent take on the topic of cell phones and politics, see the relevant Online Politics 101 chapter.

January’s Mobile Monday meeting in D.C. featured a fascinating presentation on Republican employment of cell phones and SMS text messaging in the 2006 elections, with a lot more detail than we’re usually able to get about on-the-ground use of this new (to the U.S.) political tool. Patrick Ruffini of the RNC discussed the committee’s use of text and mobile video to inform and motivate supporters, and Mike Connell of Connell Donatelli went into great depth about the DeVos campaign for Michigan governor’s foray into the world of mobile advocacy.

Patrick began the presentation with the RNC, which gathered “a few thousand” mobile activists as a start to building a 2008 election list by encouraging them to text a join message to a designated short code. The committee saw cell phones as a new channel to reach supporters with timely, topical messages, particularly as a supplement to more traditional email campaigns. The RNC could boost email open rates, for instance, by texting supporters that they had a particularly important note waiting for them while at the same time reinforcing the communications theme of the day. They found that they got more bang for the buck with SMS than with emails, since recipients were much less likely to ignore a text message (an effect that may diminish as text messages’ novelty fades). Not surprisingly, text messages were particularly useful for day-before and day-of Get Out The Vote efforts.

The RNC also went beyond text in 2006, rolling out a mobile-friendly find-your-polling-place website. Looking further ahead, Patrick talked about the potential of the mobile web to deliver a rich media experience to activists wherever they are, and also pointed out the potential of mobile phone banking, with volunteers being able to enter response data from calls as they make them for a faster and smarter response.

Mike Connell began his part of the presentation by stepping back from the most recent elections to look at the history of using cell phones for voter mobilization, starting with the first efforts in Slovenia in the year 2000. Though that initial experiment was a minor rather than a major success, most European campaigns have emulated it and have a significant SMS component. Moving up to 2006, Mike mentioned an SMS-driven electoral victory in South Korea, a successful petition drive in South Africa and a movement to send peace messages to Iraqi cell phones (for a look at less pacific uses of cell phones in the war in Iraq, see this article from a couple of months ago).

Returning to the U.S., Mike talked about his company’s work with the DeVos campaign in Michigan, where they rolled out a comprehensive mobile campaign to reinforce the candidate’s desire to present himself as a cutting-edge leader. They used online advertising and a create-a-video contest (which also generated free media coverage) to drive supporters to a site where they could “Learn more on the go” by surrendering their cell numbers, as well as forward information to a friend via email, download wallpapers and screensavers and of course make a donation. The campaign also created a phone-friendly version of the site on the .mobi domain and employed some multimedia, including a 15-second GOTV message that also got local TV pickup and some national exposure. Mike was reluctant to divulge exactly how many people actually signed up to receive mobile messages, however.

Some lessons from the DeVos effort:

  • Cell technology is still on the bleeding edge. Some strategies worked, others turned into a nightmare.
  • Get a short code early! It can take some time.
  • Commercial MMS tools are in their infancy. The campaign ended up having to build much of its own technology.
  • Phone companies go to great lengths to stop spam. They tend to err on the side of caution, and your legitimate messages can get stopped.
  • Phone-based donations can be a problem. Roughly half of each donation is siphoned-off by the providers, and a quirk in the DeVos campaign’s setup prevented them from collecting money at all.
  • Campaigns must understand the personal nature of mobile media. Cell phones are on your hip or in your pocket, and users are careful about whom they allow to intrude on such an immediate part of their lives. Don’t abuse their trust — be considerate in what you send.
  • Make it easy for people to opt-in to your campaign. Just as with URLs, feature your “Text JOIN to [short code]” message EVERYWHERE, including print pieces, websites, email messages, events, press appearances, etc. Never miss a chance to recruit, and make sure that the joining process doesn’t have unnecessary hiccups that will cut your numbers.

Looking ahead, Mike discussed:

  • The need to think beyond SMS and MMS, though there are limits to what providers will allow in the U.S., which leads to…
  • The fact that the U.S. is far from the cutting edge of mobile technology. We should watch the rest of the world for innovations.

Some other points that emerged from the question-and-answer session that followed the formal presentations:

  • As with online video, campaigns must make mobile content that people WANT to consume. Viral spread can lead to mass media pickup.
  • Campaigns need to make sure that supporters know about any fees that may apply to their participation in the campaign. Unexpected charges = bad publicity.
  • Besides its employment in electoral campaigns, we’ll see more and more use of mobile technology in the advocacy sphere, including “click-to-call-your-legislator” campaigns.
  • Comitted activists are most likely to give cell numbers, not swing voters. Texting the uncommitted may matter more in primary elections, however.
  • On a related note, mobile technology is most effective at activating volunteers to be more involved, not as a persuasive tool.
  • It’s also more likely to reach young voters, though this is likely to change as more people switch over to using a cell as their primary phone.

All in all, a terrific presentation. Thanks to Mobile Monday organizers Julie Barko Germany and Kathie Legg for putting it all together.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Interesting use of cell phones. In the book “Tipping Point” the author describes a “get your shots” campaign at a university. They tried a few scare tactics to get students to goto the health clinic, but they didn’t work. The thing that got students to go was including a map that showed where the health clinic was and the hours of operation. This way students could plan their day and include the clinic in the process. It seems that the Republicans tried to facilitate voting by the polling-place website/phone text. It seems like that type of strategy may work with getting out the vote. Although it didn’t seem to work for the Reps in 2006.

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  • We’ve run similar campaigns for our clients with great success. Instant communication with the best results. If anyone is interested in running a mobile campaign – it’s not a joke: you need to give yourself 2+ solid months just to get the short code provisioned (accepted by the carriers). We run into that everytime we launch new clients – planning ahead is key in the mobile channel. visit http://www.cellsigns.com for more information on our services.

  • We have also run SMS campaigns for our clients and observed that without comprehensive strategy for SMS, it can actually hurt a campaign. Bad content, too many messages and bad timing will sink your campaign in a second. End of the day, it really comes down to content, content, content.
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  • I agree with K Kolar – as long as text messages cost as much as they do, users do not like the idea of getting unsolicited txts unless the content is really really important. I doubt a “get out the vote” campaign, or any advertising campaign for that matter, would qualify. As a business person and technology developer in the cell phone arena, I have stayed away from any SMS based marketing efforts. I also agree that the uses of cellphones are increasing by leaps and bounds. Soon you will be able to make mobile payments using your cell phone. People in Japan can already do this – and this technology is coming very soon to the US. So perhaps people will be donating money via cellphone to political candidates. Who knows?

  • Just as Mike had mentioned, the US must look at the rest of the world and start making some changes. 3G based GSM technology has been active in Europe for a decade (including test period).