The US Election '08: How Are The Candidates Going Mobile?

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jan 18, 2008

Political ringtones, wallpapers, and SMS election updates are part and parcel of election campaigns in countries around the world -- from Spain to Kenya to the Phillipines, from Argentina to the Ukraine. It is has taken until this year's presidential election, however, for political contenders the United States to catch up.

The U.S. candidate with the most comprehensive mobile phone strategy is Democratic Senator Barack Obama. Obama, in an effort to get out younger voters, has a mobile page that allows supporters to download ringtones and wallpaper, sign up for Twitter updates, and receive text messages about policy and campaign events. Users can even receive issue-specific updates on subjects such as health care policy, education, and the war in Iraq. By signing up for Obama Mobile, users "can expect periodic updates from the campaign as well as advance notice about local Obama events and important updates about Barack's public appearances," the site says. The candidate's Twitter feed -- different from Obama Mobile -- is updated every three to five days and is almost exclusively information on Obama's location and campaign appearances.

An interesting component of the Obama mobile strategy, though, is the ringtones. Obama's ring tones are mostly bits of speeches, combined with cheering fans and rhythmic music. Although the text is hard to hear behind the hip-hop beat, the actual words are decidedly more liberal than the more carefully outlined positions on the "Issues" section of the Obama campaign site. For example, Obama's health care plan is a mix of non-mandated reforms, but his ring tone declares that "We can have universal health care in this country! We can do that!" One Iraq war ring tone says "America, it is time to start bringing our troops home" and another says "What I oppose is a dumb war," both stronger than Obama's graduated policy of pulling the troops out slowly within the next 16 months. The longest of the Obama's ring tones references stereotypes about red and blue states. Obama says,

The pundits like to slice and dice our country. Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our backyards in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states, and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. We are one people.

Although some think the ring tones are a great idea, not everyone thought Obama's ringtones were so effective -- Jon Stewart mocks the ringtones here, and the Huffington Post gave the idea a not-so-hot review.

Obama isn't the only candidate using mobile phones. John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Ron Paul have Twitter feeds, although Edwards' was last updated two months ago and Clinton's only has two -- although quite recent -- posts. By texting JOIN to short code 70007, Clinton supporters can receive campaign updates, photos, and send feedback. John Edwards' campaign also offers mobile phone updates, where supporters text "TODAY" to 30644 to receive similar updates. As Courtney Acuff notes, Obama's campaign is the only one that has bought a "vanity short code" for texting.

The Obama campaign had the foresight to register a vanity common short code (CSC) that numerically represents the word "Obama" (62262). This code is used during the mobile message alert opt-in process. While not new, the move is brilliant, considering his two closest opponents opted to use randomly generated codes instead.

However, although both Clinton and Edwards have mobile campaigns, neither one is well-integrated with their campaign strategy. There is no link to Clinton's mobile sign-up anywhere on her website, including in the "Take Action" section. To find the information on the text messaging campaign, one has to search through the press release archive and find the appropriate press release from May of 2007.

The Edwards "Take Action" section does have a link to "Receive Updates on Your Mobile Phone." However, after signing up through the online form we at MobileActive never received an SMS. Although we did receive an initial message after signing up for Clinton's and Obama's mobile alerts, neither one sent any kind of follow-up or announcement, not even when all were speaking a Democratic debate, or where in town.

None of the Republican contenders (with the exception of Ron Paul and his Twitter feed) seem to have any cogent mobile phone strategy. The press offices of Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani never returned our calls asking for details on their mobile phone strategy despite repeated promises.

The lack of well-designed and effective mobile strategies in this election is puzzling, given the effectiveness and cost of mobile political marketing. In the last midterm elections, direct mail cost campaigns were estimated to be on average $67 a vote. Door-to-door precinct walking cost about $30, cold calling costs about $20 per vote. But text messaging can cost a campaign as little as $1.50 per vote.

We have previously reported on the effectiveness of text messaging as a marketing and get-out the vote mechanism.

Text messaging works. Researchers from Princeton and Michigan Universities, together with the US Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) New Voter Project Mobile Voter (disclosure: Katrin Verclas is on the board of Mobile Voter) and Working Assets found in a 2006 study that text message reminders to new voters increased an individual’s likelihood of voting by close to 5 percentage points. This is an increase similar to "quality phone call" reminders but at a fraction of the cost. Hispanics had especially positive feelings about the voting reminders, incidentally.

This data clearly indicates that partisan and nonpartisan voter mobilization efforts need to start getting on the mobile bandwagon, especially so as younger voters are increasing in numbers and influence. By 2015 young voters will represent one-third of the U.S. Electorate and as such they’ll have the ability to shape key issues and the direction of the country. With primaries heating up, we'll be curious to see which of the candidates will get mobile right by November.

This post was written by Corinne Ramey and Katrin Verclas. 


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