Political Campaigns Look to Embrace Mobile Technologies

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Political campaigns in the U.S. have just begun to embrace text messaging and other mobile technologies to communicate with potential voters, but mobile-phone owners should expect more in upcoming elections, a group of political advisers and mobile experts said.

Text-based campaigns have hit the mainstream this year, with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama texting his choice of vice president to supporters, and House of Representatives Republicans sending out text alerts from a darkened House floor when majority Democrats went on recess in August. But there's still more that can be done, said Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, a company focused on mobile-based advocacy.

By the 2012 election, mobile-phone users will be able to send donations to political campaigns through text messaging, with the donation charged to their phone bill, Alpert predicted. Charitable organizations are already experimenting with this method of fundraising, and campaigns are able to text voters messages that allow them to connect to call centers that take donations, he said during a forum Tuesday on mobile campaigning sponsored by MobileFuture, a coalition of organizations advocating for the wireless industry.

Text messaging has several advantages over other ways of contacting voters, Alpert said. The cost of sending a text message is a fraction of the cost of phoning a voter or going door-to-door, he said, and the response rates to text messages can be 80 to 90 percent, much higher than the response rate to e-mail messages. In the U.S., mobile-phone users have to sign up to receive legitimate text-message marketing, and mobile-phone users see text messages as more relevant than much of their e-mail, he said.

During the next election cycle, many politicians will also embrace streaming audio and video, with highly targeted messages sent out to mobile-phone users, added Casey O'Shea, national field director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Politicians will soon begin to integrate mobile marketing with their other media, and the use of mobile applications will expand beyond iPhone users, the panel predicted.

"We're going to micro-targeting [voters] in a way we never thought possible," O'Shea predicted.

Politicians still raise questions about the cost and effectiveness of text messaging, said Katie Harbath, director in the online services division for DCI Group, which helps people run advocacy campaigns, and a former e-campaign adviser to former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. But forward-looking politicians will begin to embrace text messaging and other mobile technologies, with text messages or brief videos sent to mobile phones.

When a major issue arises on the campaign, those technologies will allow politicians to "rapidly respond a lot better," she said.

During a congressional recess in August, a group of Republican House members stayed in the House chamber to protest congressional inaction on energy policies. Although majority Democrats ordered the lights and C-SPAN TV cameras turned off, Representative John Culberson, from Texas, and other Republicans sent messages to Twitter using their mobile phones.

If those lawmakers hadn't used Twitter, "nobody would have known" about their protest, Harbath said. Culberson and other Twitter-using lawmakers are now getting requests from other politicians who want to use the text-based service, she said.

Rock the Vote, a group targeted at getting young people to vote, has been using text-messaging campaigns since 2004, and will soon launch a service that allows mobile-phone users to get their election questions answered by text, said Michelle Mayorga, who oversees Rock the Vote's mobile outreach program.

While politicians have begun to embrace mobile-based campaigning, the expanding use of mobile phones has presented problems for pollsters trying to get a handle on this election, said Peter Hart, chairman of Peter D. Hart Research Associates and longtime pollster for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. With an estimated 16 percent of U.S. residents no longer having wireline-based phones, most major pollsters have begun to include mobile-phone users in their polls, although pollsters still aren't sure how many people who own mobile phones instead of landlines will vote, he said.

Hart suggested that mobile users may still be undercounted in polls. The number of young and minority voters missed by the polls because they don't use a landline may bode well for Obama in his race against Republican John McCain, Hart said. Those numbers may be partially offset by the so-called Bradley effect, in which white voters tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate, then vote for the opposition, he said.

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