Forget robo-calls—Obama's text messages are this campaign's secret weapon.

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Oct. 27 2008 4:37 PM

Texts You Can Believe In

Forget robo-calls—Obama's text messages are this campaign's secret weapon.

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Not much is known about the specifics of Obama's text-messaging operation (the campaign did not respond to my request for comment). We do know that the campaign compiled its list of cell numbers in two main ways. First, the campaign has requested mobile numbers of new voters at registration drives. Then, late in the summer, the Obama camp got a huge haul of mobile numbers through a clever gimmick surrounding Obama's V.P. pick—if you texted the campaign, Obama promised to text you back as soon as he'd made his choice.

I joined Obama's text list around that time. (I would have joined McCain's text message list as well, but he doesn't have one.) Since then, I've received two or three messages a week from the Obama campaign. A typical one: "Help Barack. Tell your friends & family the last day to register to vote in CA is this Monday, Oct 20th! Visit VoteForChange.com to register NOW. Please forward."

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The texts reminded me to watch the convention and the debates and to donate money to the Red Cross when Hurricane Gustav hit. In September, Obama asked me to text him my ZIP code. I did, and now I get location-specific messages—alerts to phone banks and debate-watching parties in my area, reminders of registration deadlines in my state, and appeals for me to volunteer in neighboring states. The messages are rendered in a friendly, professional tone (they refer to the candidate as Barack) and have been free of both fundraising appeals and any kind of negative campaigning.

The beauty of text messaging is that it is both automated and personalized. This is true of e-mail, too, but given the flood of messages you get each day (no small amount from Obama), you're probably more attuned to ignoring e-mail. Text messages show up on a device that you carry with you all day long—and because you probably get only a handful of them each day, you're likely to read each one.

This is especially true when the message seems to have been tailored to you specifically—Obama's often are. The campaign knows a lot about me: At the least, it knows that I live in California, and because I joined the text-message list in order to learn the V.P. pick, that I'm fairly interested in politics (and therefore likely to vote). It's possible that they might know even more; given my ZIP code and my phone number, they could potentially have tied my text-message account to my voter registration file, allowing the campaign to send me messages based on my party registration, whether I usually vote by mail, and whether I sometimes forget to vote. (It doesn't appear that the campaign knows what's in my registration file, though; I'm registered as a permanent absentee voter, but the campaign hasn't asked me to mail in my ballot yet.)

Because text messages allow for such precise targeting, it seems likely that over the next week the Obama campaign will direct its appeals to voters in battleground states, especially first-time voters that the campaign has registered during the past year. In 2006, political science grad students Aaron Strauss and Allison Dale studied how newly registered voters responded to text-message reminders sent out just before the election. The text messages increased turnout by 3.1 percentage points. Strauss says there's a simple reason why: "The most prevalent excuse for registered voters who don't cast a ballot is, 'I'm too busy' or 'I forgot.' Texting someone is a convenient, targeted, and noticeable reminder for them to schedule their Election Day activities with a block of time set aside for going to the polling place." In a post-election survey, Strauss and Dale asked voters whether they found the text messages helpful; 59 percent said yes.

Obama's campaign seems to know these lessons well. During the primaries, the campaign sent out multiple messages to supporters during Election Day; they'll do the same next week. There's some question about whether text messages will continue to be effective beyond this election—if telemarketing companies can get ahold of our cell numbers and we get barraged by political spam, text-based mobilization efforts may eventually become as useless as robo-calls. At the moment, though, we're in thrall to our cell phones—and when Obama texts you next Tuesday, you'll have a hard time saying no.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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