Getting Lots Of Political Messages On Your Phone? Welcome To 'The Texting Election'

Oct 7, 2020
Originally published on October 8, 2020 12:56 am

Sometimes, Melissa Michelson feels like she has created a monster when she hears from voters in the 2020 election.

"When they mention how many texts they get, I say, 'I am so sorry I feel personally responsible,' " says Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in California.

More than a decade ago, Michelson conducted an experiment to see if text messages could be used to increase voter participation in San Mateo County in California.

The experiment was a big success, and, thanks in part to research by Michelson and others, text messages are now widely used by campaigns to reach out to supporters, get out the vote and raise money.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, was an early and fervid fan of texting, using a small army of volunteers to personally send messages to supporters during this year's presidential campaign.

While Republicans were slow to jump on the texting bandwagon, they have more than made up for it this year. The Trump campaign alone has said it will have sent out more than a billion text messages to supporters by Election Day.

"We look back, I think, at the 2016 election and call it the social media election. I think after 2020 people are going to look back and say this was the texting election," says Thomas Peters, founder and chief executive of RumbleUp, a texting platform for Republicans.

A compilation of screenshots of text messages sent by the Joe Biden campaign to Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University.
Jennifer Stromer-Galley

Not only is texting cheap and easy to use, it's much better than other forms of communication at grabbing voters' attention, he says.

Unlike regular mail or email, text messages are almost always read by their recipients, usually within minutes after they're sent, he says.

"The average person looks at their phone every six seconds," Michelson says. "So if you get a text message, you look at it. Your phone makes a cute little noise, if you're not already looking at it, and you read the message."

Because texting is so cheap to use, campaigns can use it to flood their supporters with messages.

This year, Jennifer Stromer-Galley of Syracuse University, who studies political campaigns in the digital era, decided to sign up for texts from both the Biden and Trump campaigns.

The number of messages she gets has tripled since the parties conventions in August, with Republicans sending three times as many as Democrats. She routinely gets texts from GOP heavyweights such as Donald Trump Jr., Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Lately, the texts have taken on a pleading tone, almost berating her for not giving money, she says.

"The one I got yesterday said, 'Do you not care that Donald Trump is running for re-election? Donate now," she says.

As texting has proliferated, so have complaints about it.

Federal law allows campaigns to send personalized text messages to individual voters, as long as an actual human being is on the other end pressing "send." Putting out large numbers of messages to people who haven't requested them — a practice known as "robotexting" — is illegal.

More than a month ago, Ed Gandia began getting texts from political candidates in Georgia, which is the site of two bitterly contested Senate races. He never signed up for them and doesn't known how the senders got his number.

The messages would come in frequently, five or six times a day, urging him to attend a rally, vote for a candidate, or donate to a campaign. He tried unsubscribing. It doesn't always work.

"It's annoying. It's disruptive, because many times my phone is not on vibrate and I'm on business calls. It seems very disrespectful," Gandia says.

The texts do get Gandia's attention. However, one thing they won't do, he says, is influence his vote.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At a time when the coronavirus has made traditional campaigning nearly impossible, texting is a cheap and easy way for candidates to get their message out. A lot of voters, though, just find it annoying. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Sometimes Melissa Michelson feels like she created a monster.

MELISSA MICHELSON: I have been apologizing to people for years now. When they mention how many texts they get, I say, I am so sorry. I feel personally responsible.

ZARROLI: Michelson is a political scientist at Menlo College in California. A decade ago, she helped organize a get-out-the-vote drive in San Mateo County. She wanted to see if the new technology of text messaging could be used to reach voters. What she discovered was...

MICHELSON: Text messages were a pretty powerful tool for increasing voter turnout.

ZARROLI: Thanks in part to research like hers, texting has become a big way campaigns get out the vote and raise money. And in the wake of COVID-19, it's really come into its own.

THOMAS PETERS: We look back at the 2016 election, kind of call it the social media election. I think after 2020, people are going to look back and say this was the texting election.

ZARROLI: Thomas Peters is chief executive of RumbleUp, a text messaging platform. Peters says candidates like texting because it's cheap and it works. He says voters don't always read emails and snail mail from campaigns.

PETERS: But 99% of text messages are read, and 90% are read within the first three minutes. So it's a channel that has unparalleled visibility.

ZARROLI: Peters works for Republicans, and he gets the numbers he uses from the campaigns, which collect them from a variety of sources, such as voter registration records. Republicans were late to start texting, but they've more than made up for it. The Trump campaign says it will have sent out a billion texts by Election Day.

JENNIFER STROMER-GALLEY: Really, since the conventions and maybe a little bit before that, the number of text messages I'm getting from the campaign on a daily basis has tripled.

ZARROLI: Jennifer Stromer-Galley of Syracuse University studies political campaigns. This year, she signed up for texts from both presidential campaigns. She gets four times as many texts from Trump as from Biden. And the texts these days are getting more aggressive. They almost sound like they're berating her.

STROMER-GALLEY: The one I received yesterday basically said, do you not care that Donald Trump is running for reelection? Donate now.

ZARROLI: This week, Stromer-Galley even got a text asking her to sign a get-well card for the president. She also hears from a lot of big-name Republicans acting as Trump surrogates.

STROMER-GALLEY: For example, Eric Trump, the head of the RNC. Cory Gardner apparently has sent me a text, Kevin McCarthy.

ZARROLI: The Trump campaign has sent out so many texts that its software program was briefly knocked out of service by spam filters in July. Sending out unsolicited texts en masse is supposed to be illegal, but Ed Gandia has been getting texts from politicians for weeks. He says he never signed up for them.

ED GANDIA: It's one thing for them to have my mailing address but something totally different for them to have my cellphone. It's not something I give out.

ZARROLI: Gandia is a business coach in Georgia, a hot spot of tightly contested elections. He regularly gets texts from presidential and congressional campaigns - texts reminding him where to vote or telling him about an upcoming rally and, of course, lots of texts asking for money. He tries to unsubscribe. They come in anyway.

GANDIA: It's annoying. It's disruptive because many times, my phone is not on vibrate and I'm on business calls. And it seems very disrespectful.

ZARROLI: Gandia says the texts do get his attention. There's just one thing they won't do - they won't sway his vote.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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